Disagreeing with the Brethren

I am entirely out of the loop regarding the brou-ha-ha with Bro. Nielsen at BYU. I have worked there and hope to work there again. I have been asked by friends and colleagues why I want to work there, when stuff like what happened to Bro. Nielsen happens. I have personally expressed concern myself regarding what the potential effects of my decision to blog might be on the possibility of working there. But I still teach (when they let me) and I still would like to.

I have a story to share. It is apocryphal. I have a friend who, when teaching at BYU, expressed some frustration with the presence of ‘the man’ in his classroom to a full-time faculty member in his department. What was intended was that my student felt constrained by what his students considered kosher within classroom discussion. For that matter, he perceived some pressure from his department regarding what he ought to teach and how. The full-time faculty member told him that, if he couldn’t deal with that pressure, perhaps he shouldn’t attempt to get a job at BYU.

What is the moral of the story? I’m not entirely sure. Many people at BYU feel like there is a vast conspiracy housed there. It doesn’t seek to oppress the truth, but rather it seeks to make sure that you tell the most appropriate version. However, there is some disagreement regarding what that version is. This of course makes it a little harder to bow to the will of the conspiracy.

I have heard some awfully speculative things said by teachers at BYU (occasionally, I am one of them (although I try not to do it in class)). In fact, I am not sure that such a thing as LDS orthodoxy really exists in any sort of systematic way. Even correlated materials can appear contradictory, as if they were put together by different committees (as they often are).

I have also heard people disagree with the Brethren in classroom settings at BYU (which are inherently public). I should say that any such disagreeing was done politely and with all due respect. But it is possible to do. I can say and have said in class that I respectfully disagree with Elder McConkie, for instance. I don’t dismiss Elder McConkie’s ideas out of hand (in part, because I believe Elder McConkie was someone who took the scriptures very seriously, which is always a good thing), but I don’t feel compelled to accept everything that he wrote as the sole means to understand the Gospel, either. He and I can disagree, while still treating each other with respect and not assuming the worst of the other.

I haven’t heard anyone call the Brethren ‘immoral’ or imply that they were ‘immoral’ at BYU. To me, this is where Bro. Nielsen stepped across the line. I don’t know the exact cause for the decision to not re-hire Bro. Nielsen, but I do know that bad-mouthing the Brethren is frowned upon in all areas of BYU. I don’t know Bro. Nielsen at all and have read only the ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version of his editorial. I can’t comment on what he had to say specifically. However, in my experience, it is the academics who take it into their heads to tell the Brethren how things should be that risk censure (and usually get it). Outside of their ecclesiastical callings, the Brethren are grown men who have, generally speaking, made something of themselves, and if having someone call you an uneducated idiot doesn’t sit well with you, imagine how it sits with them. If institutional change is going to come from you and your ideas, you are much more likely to get a hearing if you approach the Brethren on their own terms. Throwing your disgust with the Brethren out into the public is highly unlikely to influence them in your favor.

In point of fact, I am one of those people who could live with the ‘vast conspiracy’ at BYU. Sometimes I get irritated, but generally it is with the same sort of administrative flim-flam that one encounters at any large institution. I don’t believe that the limits on speech at BYU in any way affect my ability to research or to express my opinions. Nor do I believe that, if properly applied, they should interfere with any possible research. So perhaps I am not the ideal person to address Bro. Nielsen’s dilemma. I am not sure that the conspiracy exists in any case or, if it does, I am sure that it isn’t enforced by the faculty. If anything, I have found students to be the most rigorous enforcers of status quo at any institution of higher learning. That is probably another story.


  1. Read the OpEd JDC. The tone was so not derisory (as some are suggesting). He also did not say, “the Brethren are immoral.” I must have read a different piece to everyone else.

  2. Ronan is right, Nielsen didn’t say the Brethren are immoral. However, he did state that “When the church hierarchy speaks on a public issue and requests that members follow, it is difficult indeed if an individual feels the content of their message would make bad law and is unethical as well.” So the Brethren aren’t immoral, but they could be construed as unethical.

    BTW, I don’t remember the letter to the Church mentioning “following.” I just recall being told to contact my state representatives and letting them know how I feel. Maybe that was an ad-lib from the bishop, but I don’t think so. I find little difference between this and the little annual election time reminder in sacrament meeting to prayerfully choose a candidate who would best represent the principles inherent in the gospel.

  3. J. Daniel Crawford says:

    Okay, I finally read the piece. He doesn’t say that the Brethren are immoral. He says that the proposed amendment, support for it, and disagreement with Gay marriage are immoral. He also argues that the Brethren rely on fear to motivate (vague, undocumented fear) and that they are “less than truthful” regarding the history of the church. I know that these are oft discussed tropes in the ‘Nacle, but there really isn’t an assumption of good will on the part of the Brethren in his editorial (although, to be fair, he does seem to assume bad will either; he seems to be assuming widespread ignorance and willful incompetence).

    I suppose this gets to the heart of what I wanted to say and why I decided to write about this old news. The limit set on study at BYU seems to be that we have to assume that the Brethren mean no ill. I don’t see that assumption in Nielsen’s editorial.

  4. J. Daniel Crawford says:

    Also, for those who haven’t yet read it and would like to, here is a link.

    Also, when this post first went up, I consistently misspelled Bro. Nielsen’s name. I’ve fixed it, but I feel a need to apologize.

  5. My experience as a part-time faculty member at BYU tells me there is great hope for the future, judging from the calibre of students we get. However, I have had several students express concern about something they’ve read which seems out of sync with the sorts of things they feel they “should” read. I had one student tell me she felt at odds with the Spirit because of something the class had read. I later learned that this student was dealing with huge issues in her life (the break-up of her marriage). I understood that, for the moment, she simply could not deal with ambiguity. Her whole life was falling apart; she actually NEEDED a Jack Weyland (or thought she did). I certainly don’t feel a sense of conspiracy at BYU, but the Nielson case suggests that certain issues comprise litmus tests for loyalty, with huge consequences if one fails. We had a problem in our department awhile back when students would complain about reading assignments (such stories as Oates’s “Where are you going, where have you been?”) to GENERAL AUTHORITIES, not to their teachers. Many of us put clauses in our syllabi indicating appropriate response to an assignment a student might find disagreeable or inconsistent with “For The Strength of Youth.” I resolved the problem by letting the students self-direct their reading–which I can do because I teach Creative Writing, so it’s not essential that the students read the same material, just that they find good mentors in their reading. I give them a long list of good authors and let them know which ones include swearing or sex in their work. The student then decides whether or not to read that author. They get to be responsible. One final story: Years ago, we had a visiting professor (non-LDS) who made a striking observation. He said that our students were certainly bright and capable, but that they were not always honest in their writing, that fear and self-censoring came into play far too often, particularly in personal essays. I’m afraid that’s probably accurate in too many instances. And the Nielson case will certainly send a message that honesty can be dangerous. Very sad.

  6. Daniel (#3) doesn’t that entail that they are immoral? It seems like a difference without a difference if the brethren disagrees with Gay marriage (rather publicly) and then I say anyone who disagrees with Gay marriage is immortal.

    It seems the key paragraph is this:

    “When the church hierarchy speaks on a public issue and requests that members follow, it is difficult indeed if an individual feels the content of their message would make bad law and is unethical as well. I believe opposing gay marriage and seeking a constitutional amendment against it is immoral. “

  7. J. Daniel Crawford says:

    I deeply respect your voice and I am very glad that you commented here. I don’t see this as solely an issue of honesty, not even of public honesty. Nielsen could have couched his commentary in terms that would have been inoffensive or, at least, that would not have held up the Brethren to ridicule as either bigots or ignoramuses. He choose not to. There is a difference between expressing one’s own opinion, while allowing others the right to their own, and expressing one’s own opinion as the only rational approach (rendering opposition irrational or unintelligent). As far as I can tell, Bro. Nielsen (perhaps inadvertantly) went the second route.

    In an interesting response (found in the sidebar), Bro. Nielsen cites ‘loyalty’ as the biggest factor in his firing. I can read disloyalty into his editorial, in the sense that he, as I said, doesn’t seem to give the Brethren the benefit of the doubt. Is it possible to give them the benefit of the doubt and suggest change? That might be a question worth persuing.

    Clark, I agree with your analysis. He fails to call them immoral in only the most technical of senses.

  8. It’s difficult for me to discuss this without thinking of George Q. Canon’s statement

    A friend . . . wished to know whether we had said that we considered an honest difference of opinion between a member of the church and the authorities of the church was apostasy, as he said, we had been credited with having made a statement to this effect. We replied that we had not stated that an honest difference of opinion between a member of the church and the authorities constituted apostasy; for we could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the authorities of the church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man **publishing those differences of opinion**, and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife, and **to place the acts and counsels of the authorities of the church, if possible, in a wrong light**, and not be an apostate; for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term.

    I’m not citing this to to call Nielson an apostate, but it’s clear that by publishing what he did, he violated the spirit, if not the letter, of his BYU contract. Were he Joe Schmo member, nothing would happen. And indeed, nothing else, like disfellowshipment, has happened.

  9. Nielsen appeared on radiowest a couple days ago. My admiration for the man increased a dozen-fold after listening to him.

    You can here it here:

  10. I meant “you can hear it here.”

  11. I agree with Loyd. Unfortunately, I have only had time to listen to the first break, but Nielsen sounds to me like a class act. Not sure about the presenter though, who seemed anxious for Nielsen to but the boot in – maybe he’s just doing his job.

  12. Aaron Brown says:

    Clark said:
    “…and then I say anyone who disagrees with Gay marriage is immortal.”

    Whatever else the merits of gay marriage (or lack thereof), if disagreeing with gay marriage will actually make me “immortal,” then I hereby firmly disagree with gay marriage. Prohibiting the State from formally recognizing same-sex unions is a small price to pay for my immortality. :)

    Aaron B

  13. I think it’s strange that we judge Nielsen. We all feel strongly about certain issues. Sometimes those issues conflict with our community, in this case the Church. Then depending on who we are, what our experience is, what the issue is and probably a million other things we decide what is best for us in our voicing our opinion. For some people, that’s to quietly work within the structure to get things to change, sometimes that’s saying something outloud (like Nielsen), sometimes that’s changing your opinion to be in line with the Church.
    How on earth do we decide what is right for other people to do when dealing with these sorts of ideas? How can we say so and so should have done it this way because he could affect more change or he never should have come to BYU because he can’t handle it?
    Maybe we get all worked about it because we are desperately trying to figure those things out for ourselves, how we deal with our differences of opinion.
    If Nielsen did what was right in his mind for this issue I think he did the right thing.

    I wonder if you had read his op-ed etc before you wrote the post if you would have formed a different opinion.

  14. Here is my problem.

    Say you have a lieutentant who gets out and publicly derides the generals on an issue of controversy in the midst of a battle. Would the general be in the wrong to remove that lieutentant?

  15. Steve Evans says:

    Dan, are we in a military organization, or in the midst of a battle?

    Even if the answer to both of those questions were “yes,” a general could be in the wrong, depending upon the circumstances of the removal.

  16. Ben #8, I find the quoted statement fascinating. For one thing, it’s so narrow that I have a bit of a hard time imagining a situation in which it would apply. Cannon lists a series of conditions for apostacy which are linked by “and,” i.e., you need all of them to be apostate. One of the conditions is:

    …seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife…

    How can any private citizen enforce her opinions on the people? That’s a pretty strict–indeed, almost impossible–requirement, isn’t it?

  17. Also, what’s the point of removing the disagreer? Are we afraid that there will be a coup if not removed? Are we afraid that no one will listen to the general if the lieutenant isn’t removed? Are we afraid that it will be chaotic if the lieutenant is allowed to disagree and stays?

    Those things rarely happen with disagreements or voicing opposing opinions. Sometimes they do, true, but mostly not and so the fear seems unfounded.

  18. Seth R. says:

    I know that several here will dismiss this take simply because it comes from Boyd K. Packer (which is unfortunate). But, he gave an address where he basically stated:

    The church doesn’t need “fair minded scholarship.” Too often, being “fair-minded” simply means giving the adversary equal air time with the Gospel. He said that this is not calling of the LDS scholar. He concluded that what the Church needs are “advocates” from its own scholarly ranks, not an attempt to serve both God and mammon (in the form of peer reviews and demands for scholarly relevance).

    I found the address slightly problematic, but I think he makes some rather good points that are too often ignored by us, as we rush to worship at the feet of the godess of “fairness and open-mindedness.”

  19. Aaron Brown says:

    My default reaction to BYU firing (or, as in this case, merely not renewing the contract of) a professor would normally be to be suspicious of the University’s motives, to decry the action, to lament the miserable state of academic freedom in Mormonism’s flagship university, etc., etc.

    But not in this case. If one were to sit down and try to compose a letter that would guarantee one’s dismissal from BYU, it would be hard to draft a better one than Nielson’s. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the Church’s political stand, and I think a responsible case against the gay marriage amendment can be made. But Nielson hasn’t made it. Further, his letter includes various references to what I see as gratuitous tangential issues, and even when I am prone to agree with those points in principle, I think they didn’t improve the quality or thrust of his argument.

    The letter was just too much. Too many issues, not enough careful argumentation in laying them out. And at least when Cecilia Farr took a public pro-choice abortion stand, she could point to the University’s somewhat disingenuous handling of her situation, legitimately assert that no BYU policy was clearly implicated, and reasonably complain that her position was not doctrinally suspect, notwithstanding the efforts of others to construe it as such. But in Nielson’s case, he publicly repudiates the First Presidency’s political stand right after it makes it. (Incidentally, I’m aware of the arguments concerning the ambiguity of the statement, and I don’t find them persuasive). One can disagree with the Church’s position without failing to see that this letter probably crossed some line. If you grant that there’s going to be at least SOME limitations on academic freedom at a religious university (and I don’t think there should be too many), there has to be SOME conceivable situation where a BYU employee’s public, printed disagreement with the Church’s own public advocacy is crossing the line. If this isn’t that situation, what WOULD be that situation?

    I can’t believe I’m saying this. Am I just becoming reactionary in my old age?

    Aaron B

  20. Seth, I agree that the address you quote (which can be read in full here) is problematic. In particular, this is the speech in which Elder Packer states that some parts of Mormon history are “true but not very useful.” Regardless of exactly what Elder Packer meant by that, he created a catch-phrase for a decade of anti-Mormons–and a slogan that scares a lot of faithful folks who subsequently worry about the dangerous secrets floating in our history.

  21. Aaron, I think you’re right to note that BYU simply isn’t like most other universities, and that we shouldn’t expect it to be. Plenty of religious universities don’t impose any limitations on academic freedom, but BYU does have partial academic freedom and that’s just that.

    If BYU were to adopt academic freedom such as what, for example, Notre Dame has, there’s a straightforward answer to your question about what kind of publich speech situation would cross the line and justify disciplinary action: a public speech that claimed to represent the university as an institution but did not. Pretty nearly nothing else in the way of speech (except for speech acts such as sexual harrassment) justifies disciplinary actions under normal academic freedom rules.

    BYU’s chosen not to adopt those rules. That puts it outside the mainstream for universities–but BYU and a lot of faculty and students seem to think that’s worthwhile. So there you are.

  22. Steve Evans says:

    I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I agree with Aaron! Am I becoming complacent in my old age?

  23. What kind of line are you talking about? What line did he cross? your good taste line? the you-can-disagree-if-you-write-in-a-nice-way line? the well-of-course-you’re-going-to-get-fired-you-dumbass line? You’re clearly need to be more explicit in his line crossing, Aaron.

    He’s just saying what he thinks. Of course he knows the tradition of BYU and the Church but this is his issue. He cares about it, he feels moved by conscience and the Spirit to be a loud voice in this issue. Let him do it.

    BYU’s weird. Everyone knows that. I really liked it but it’s weird. I’m glad he followed his conscience. I guess BYU is following its conscience too and good for it, but I’m glad Nielsen is talking.

    Thanks for the link loyd for the interview btw. it’s good. except febrezio (if that’s his real name)he’s a little lame.

  24. Daniel, what’s your response to Nielson’s letter back to the deparatment chair?

    I highly recommend listening to the interview noted in #9 above as a means of learning more about Nielson’s motives and reaction, and for a primer on how to behave in an interview.

    It’s true Nielson could have been more measured with his language; BYU could have been more measured with its response. I wish our church and university institutions were mature enough to engage criticism via dialogue versus violence.

  25. Matt Thurston says:

    The Brethren think Gay Marriage is a moral issue, and Nielsen thinks denying Gays the right to marry is a moral issue. What’s the difference? They both think it is a moral issue. Why are people jumping on Nielsen for saying this is “immoral”? The Brethren are using the same terminology.

    Nielsen “express[ed] himself” on the immorality of the issue, just as the Brethren asked.

    By the way, why didn’t the Brethren just come out and say “express yourselves to your Senator in support of a Marriage Amendment that disallows Gay Marriage”, or whatever? Why just say “express yourself”, and leave it open ended? We all know which way they’d like us to express ourselves, so why not just say it? If it truly is an open-ended question, then why was Nielsen terminated (irregardless of whether the order came from SLC or BYU)?

  26. RT, BYU’s unique level of academic freedom hasn’t kept it from being well-regarded in some disciplines, from achieving pretty good national rankings in some of its programs, from being considered by U.S. News and World Report as one of the best values in higher education and being ranked overall alongside other respectable institutions like University of Connecticut and Southern Methodist University. So it doesn’t seem to be a huge deal to people outside of BYU either, at least in terms of it being considered a respectable academic institution. Then again, who knows, maybe it would be top tier without the academic freedom issues, such as they are.

    Basically, it may be outside the mainstream on one particular aspect of academic freedom, but overall it doesn’t seem to be outside the mainstream of American universities.

  27. Aaron Brown says:

    Incidentally, so I don’t cement my new reactionary reputation, let me give my two cents on academic freedom at BYU:

    BYU touts itself as a place where LDS students can come together and discss issues of faith in an academic setting without fear of dismissive mockery from others. It holds itself out as a place where secular and spiritual knowledge can openly and meaningful interact, and where students and faculty can explore the intersection of the two. I think this is a laudible goal of the institution, that at least sometimes BYU is successful at providing this very type of experience, and that that’s all good.

    It does NOT follow from any of this that BYU should have an academic freedom policy that puts the open, vigorous and honest discussion of controversial issues — even one’s that directly relate to core LDS doctrinal issues — out of bounds. I adamantly believe that it should NOT put those issues out of bounds. My vision of an ideal Mormon academic institution is one in which all the stuff that some leaders or administrators don’t want discussed or advocated is, in fact, VIGOROUSLY discussed and advocated (to the extent that one is genuinely inclined to so advocate). I am vehemently opposed to the model of BYU as “Seminary, Part II” or as “Shelter from the World.”

    Of course, BYU has the “right” to set whatever academic freedom policy it wants, but that’s not my point. I am making an internal critique, as an LDS member, of what I think an ideal LDS university should look like, and what policies it should pursue. I have often been vocally critical of how BYU handles academic freedom controversies. I don’t like the smug, self-assured culture that often abounds there, and I think said culture is often a defensive posture (masquerading as righteous conviction) adopted by those who probably couldn’t cut it at an institution where, rather than basking in their own self-righteousness and groupthink, they might actually have to make cogent arguments in favor of their prejudices (gasp!).

    But having said all this, I just can’t get worked up about Nielson’s firing. Is there ANY limitation on academic freedom at BYU that can be justified, from a Mormon perspective? Given the authoritative stature of the LDS leadership in Mormonism (You can love it or hate it, but there’s no denying that it’s there), I believe that if there is EVER an action that could conceivably cross the line (and warrant a professor’s dismissal from the university, based upon his/her incompatibility with the values of the institution), it would be a situation where the Church leadership has taken an unambiguous public stand on some issue, and a professor then immediately and publicly dismisses the position of the leadership as essentially immoral. Isn’t that exactly what’s gone on in this case? I’m open to parsing this issue in 500 different ways, but so far I’m just not seeing the argument for why letting Nielson go was such a travesty.

    None of this is meant to disparage Nielson’s convictions, or to say there is something inherently morally wrong about finding yourself so against the Church’s stand that you feel the need to vocalize it. Is there some point at which, if you feel strongly enough that the Church leadership is wrong, you should just willingly unaffiliate with the Church’s institution? Wouldn’t this be a case like that? If not, what WOULD be a case like that? Seriously. I’d really like to know.

    I’m rambling …

    Aaron B

  28. Aaron Brown says:

    Matt Thurston said:
    “By the way, why didn’t the Brethren just come out and say “express yourselves to your Senator in support of a Marriage Amendment that disallows Gay Marriage”, or whatever? Why just say “express yourself”, and leave it open ended? We all know which way they’d like us to express ourselves, so why not just say it?”

    Because they don’t want to lose their tax-exempt status as a 501c3 organization. Seriously, that’s probably the reason. The tax code prohibits organizations from trying to influence legislation or wage political campaigns. You can be sure that some Church lawyer vetted the letter.

    I think it’s silly to pretend that the Church was being ambiguous in order to signal that it was more interested in Churchmembers being opinionated and expressive per se, rather than interested in the content of their opinions and expressions to their political leaders.

  29. I understand exempt organizations are allowed to carry on propaganda and lobby for legislation, so long as that is not “a substantial part of the[ir] activites.” Code section 501(c)(3). I do not think the language of the last sentence of the First Presidency’s letter has a material effect on whether the Church’s activities in favor of an amendment are a “substantial part” of its activities.

  30. Aaron Brown says:

    David, you might be right. I don’t know. I’m a lawyer, but I really no nothing about this area of the law.

    If this isn’t the reason, however, than I am at a loss as to what to make of the less-than-direct instruction to the membership in the First Presidency letter. I agree with those who say that it is much less forthright in its phrasing than it could have been. I have just disagreed as to what that means. I think it unlikely that the choice of language was careless. I also think it very unlikely that the choice of language was designed to encourage political activity in the membership per se, regardless of the content of the politics. So where does this leave me?

    Aaron B

  31. Aaron Brown says:

    ” … I really no nothing about this area of the law.”

    I evidently also “know” nothing about spelling simple monosyllabic words.

    Aaron B

  32. Jonathan Green says:

    I think this incident, while generating lots of bad press for BYU, is really quite a bit smaller than the headlines indicate. It’s not fundamentally about academic freedom for faculty at BYU, although that plays a role. The decision not to rehire Nielsen was not made by the church, by BYU, by the president or provost or a dean, but by the head of the philosophy department. If you want to understand the decision, then you have to look at the department within the university, not the university as a whole. For a tenure-track or tenured faculty member, a department head would not have the same freedom. There’s a cautionary tale in there about the consequences of hiring more adjuncts and fewer tenure-track faculty, but Nielsen would not have been eligible for a tenure-track position in philosophy in any case. I’ve been on semester contracts before, and I support the rights of exploited adjuncts everywhere, but Nielsen is just not well positioned to be a martyr for the cause of academic freedom at BYU.

  33. Tom, I agree–BYU is pretty much only outside of the mainstream on academic freedom issues. Some great professors are at BYU.

    Aaron, I don’t think it was really a travesty that Nielsen was dismissed; he must have known this was going to happen. The reason it’s a big news story is that it’s a violation of academic freedom. People outside the church community may not understand that BYU doesn’t have full academic freedom–and therefore, each time one of these cases comes up, it’s a big news story.

  34. One of the aspects of BYU policy that has not been touched here, as far as I can see, looks from the standpoint of a purely customer-oriented market-driven business. Students — and to a slightly lesser degree, their parents — are the clientele. Plainly, the customers of BYU-as-business would be poorly served by a BYU that approximates the typical academic policy elsewhere. BYU fills a unique niche market by offering unique policy and an educational environment that distinguishes itself in ways that appeal to personal choices of the majority of its customers.

    Insistence that BYU should look just like every other comparable academic institution ignores the fact that most of the customers are well-served, just as it is. And of course, if we look at the picture from a market-driven perspective, there are plenty of viable academic competitors where students can go that project the antithesis of the policy that seems to distinguish BYU.

    Judging the disposition of BYU employees from this perspective also clarifies the Nielson issue. As with most other businesses, BYU employees that are openly critical of their employer can expect to find themselves looking for a new job.

  35. Elisabeth says:

    Academic freedom aside, I think it’s embarrassing that the Church and BYU felt that Nielson’s op-ed was dangerous enough to make such a fuss about. The Church played right into Nielson’s hand – and vice versa.

    This incident is dredging up the same old issues, including whether or not BYU is a “real” university and not an overgrown Sunday School (as some wise woman once characterised BYU), and whether Church members can ever disagree with The Bretheren. This case is especially extraordinary – since the First Presidency’s statement did not state an explicit position on the issue, but it actually ENCOURAGED people to think about the issue and express their opinions on the matter (there’s no reason to spend any time pondering an issue if there is only one “right” answer).

    And all this drama over a cause everyone knew would fail before it even started!

    Seriously, I’m just shaking my head here. I don’t get it.

  36. Elisabeth,

    just for clarification, it wasn’t the church who reprimanded him, nor the BYU administration. it was the dean of his school. we don’t know if the dean got approval for his removal from the Brethren or from the BYU administration. to say otherwise would be disingenuous.

  37. I think because of the unique rules and environment at BYU, a lot of people who have been there for a period of time begin to chafe a little bit. Eventually someone acts out a little and then there are negative consequences or nothing happens. It can be slightly arbitrary at times, depending on the disposition of whoever is in charge or the amount of attention that a particular act of rebellion is given.

    I wonder, if Nielsen hadn’t been fired, what his next step would have been … whether he would have faded back into obscurity or if he would have found new means to publicize his views. It’s impossible to tell. I don’t think he should be surprised by the reaction he received.

    Certainly a line has been drawn and a message sent. BYU professors simply aren’t as free to publish views that directly contradict the plain views of the First Presidency. People keep saying that the letter from the First Presidency didn’t tell people what to think on the matter … but I think they’re deluding themselves a bit.

  38. Aaron Brown says:

    On Dan’s point: Many assume that one or more members of the Board of Trustees was pulling the strings with respect to Nielsen’s contract not being renewed, and Dan is right to suggest that no one can say for sure that this is what happened.

    On the other hand, given certain historical precedents, it is not unreasonable to entertain the idea that certain Church leaders were behind this.

    On the other hand, given that it’s not hard for everyone to imagine Church leaders doing this, it also shouldn’t be hard to imagine the BYU Philosophy Dean doing this on his own, recognizing that if he didn’t, the Church might then ask him to, or might frown on him for not recognizing that he should have done so without their specifically instructing him to.

    On the other hand …. oh wait. I only have two hands.

    Aaron B

  39. Stirling, (#24)

    I think in that letter he is portraying himself as a martyr. I obviouslyl don’t think very highly of Mr. Nielson. He should be a smart enough man to know exactly what he is doing and what the result would have been of his op-ed. Methinks, cynically, with his relatively low and undistinguishable position as part-time instructor, what better way to springboard your way to a better paying job?

  40. Aaron, #38,

    Methinks that he was too small fry for the Brethren to get involved. but that’s just my honest opinion from far out Pennsylvania, five years removed from BYU.

  41. Elisabeth says:

    Dan – well, I think we can agree that firing Nielson was not an independent decision made by his Dean.

    Look, any public relations professional would tell you that firing Nielson directly after he published his editorial would create more of a media spectacle. In my opinion, the Church/BYU/the Dean should have taken the high road here and worked this out privately with Mr. Nielson.

    But perhaps the Church/BYU/the Dean NOT firing Nielson would have been even more controversial :)

  42. Seth R. says:

    Re RT/JNS #20,

    Elder Packer’s speech to the CES faculty was really interesting and had a rather unconventional take on things. You don’t often find public figures these days who have the guts to put things quite so bluntly and controversially as he did there. Most would just hide behind vague and useless platitudes, read a few scriptures and leave the issue alone.

    I think someone on the Bloggernacle ran a post discussing that speech before (maybe DMI?). Regardless of whether you agree with Elder Packer or not, I think the speech is required reading for anyone who wants to discuss the role of scholarly coverage and reaction to the LDS Church.

  43. Just to add, I think that given this was the humanities department and there was a “history” there during early 90’s with a lot of ill will between professors might have something to do with all this.

    I think everyone is looking at this a bit independent of the context.

    But I also agree with comments made in some of the various blog posts on this that there is essentially a very uneasy tension between the idea of a religious university and the “ideal” of academia. It’s really two different senses of freedom.

    There is the one that one might call the Libertarian view where every individual can say or do anything they want with little repercussion unless they directly hurt others. It’s arguable how often this actually happens in academia, but clearly once tenure is given at most facilities you’re home free. But I think the tenure process makes a joke of the “ideal” of academic freedom. There’s just too much politics involved in who gets tenure.

    The other ideal is that each university is like a community. Each community (or in this case university) ought have its own character. Diversity thus is seen as dozens upon dozens of unique views of academia. As these universities interact that provides diversity and progress.

    This view isn’t terribly popular but is what some religious universities are aiming at. Others (such as Notre Dame) arguable are going for the more traditional sense.

    Realistically these two views (call one the cosmopolitan view and the other the community view) are in utter and irreconcilable contrast with each other.

  44. I have a sib who is a newly minted faculty member, and I note that he’s being very cautious these days in his opinions. I wonder if this case isn’t just another in a long series of “scare the new faculty straight” salvoes.

    I was there during Farr/Knowlton, and had a family member caught up in the meddling in the hiring process of the English department around 1997(?). I think sometimes certain circumstances play into the hands of the administration. The family experience suggests that SLC does not play as much a part in the troubles as we’d like to think — it was done out of the X-building, instead. Nielson was a permanent adjunct, it would appear, so his dean had little to lose by making an example of him.

    In other words, it had been awhile since the last public beheading and a certain citizen wandered by, splashing mud on the executioner, asking, “hey, what’s the shiny axe for?”

  45. [Or perhaps more appropriate, the citizen comments, “Hey, that’s a really wimpy axe you got there, you executioner blowhard!”]

  46. He cares about it, he feels moved by conscience and the Spirit to be a loud voice in this issue.

    Am I the only one that thinks it wasn’t his conscience that led him to publish his statement. I won’t bother with the Spirit.

    I also think the subject of his message comes into play. It seems as though those who are in agreement with Nielson about SSM are lamenting his dismissal (regardless of the academic freedom discussion) whereas those on the other side of the aisle agree with the decision made.

    BTW, did the Harvard President’s dismissal for public comments violate academic freedom?

  47. This post is so bizarre to me. The problem is that we have a culture wherein the leaders of the church that we prop up with our time and wealth are accustomed to treating people in their church as their minions that they rule over. You say, “the Brethren are grown men who have, generally speaking, made something of themselves, and if having someone call you an uneducated idiot doesn’t sit well with you.” Could you imagine saying this with a straight face to justify the actions of a political leader who tries to screw a constituent who criticizes him. Could you imagine someone at a prestigious University saying this to justify the firing of a professor who publicly disagreeing with a major donor?

    So they don’t like it when people publicly disagree with them? That’s just tough luck. If these people are as successful and educated as you claim, then they should understand the ramifications of living in a pluralistic society.

    Dissent is the human condition, and attempts to squelch it are attempts to squelch humanity. The biggest problem I see with mormon culture is that too many forms of dissent are viewed as bad. That’s a dangerous thing. It’s a Weimar germany type thing.

  48. Kevin Barney says:

    Just a small clarification: the Church derives its tax exemption from the fact that it is a church under the Internal Revenue Code. It is not a 501(c)(3) organization.

  49. Aaron Brown says:

    Shows what I know about tax law. :)

    Aaron B

  50. So they don’t like it when people publicly disagree with them?

    Well, of course you can think what you like, but your question is nonsensical. “Don’t like” is hardly an appropriate operative in this context.

    BYU and the institutional church both formally recognize the proper place for debate and argumentation. Unfortunate as it might seem to some, however, they also recognize the need for order and policy, and the requirement to maintain equilibrium between these factors. The rules are neither obscure nor complex.

    Nielson believes he was compelled by his own strong feelings on this matter. Why should we impute any lesser motive to the BYU officials responsible for his dismissal?

    It would deplorable for a philosophy professor to betray his own ideals. And, just as much a disservice for BYU to do less than enforce their own rules.

  51. DKL,

    Mormons choose to be Mormons, just like Baptists choose to be Baptists, and Catholics choose to be Catholics. So if you dissent, you are perfectly free to leave. Comparing being a member of a religion to being a citizen in a society that can actually force you to do things you don’t like is disingenuous. Nobody is squelching anybody’s views. People can freely leave. Now, if they want to remain active and a member of a religion, they have to choose. Do they speak out and leave the religion? or do they stay quiet and a member? On some issues you just simply cannot have both. This is the case with all religions. Some Catholics were saying in 2004 that Kerry shouldn’t receive Communion because of his political beliefs. I know of a church in Virginia, if i recall correctly, where members were removed from the records because they voted for Kerry.

    The Salt Lake Tribune tried to play up the whole Thoreau “civil disobedience” angle, but it fails upon inspection, as Guy proved so well on his Messenger and Advocate blog.

  52. #13 (Amri),
    I hope that I don’t come across as “judging” Bro. Nielsen; at least not in any sense of worthiness. I am sure that he is a good father, kind to children, fulfils all his calling, etc. I think that it is entirely possible that he didn’t realize the full import of his choice of phrases (listening to him on RadioWest may further convince me of this). As I censure him for finding the worst in the situation, I certainly shouldn’t assume the worst of him. That I or anyone can criticize his choices in expressing himself is apparent since he publically announced his opinion. I assume that is the reason he put it out there.
    Regarding the timing of my reading, you may have a point. However, I don’t think his editorial reads as innocently as Bro. Nielsen’s defenders tend to portray it.

    #16 (RT/JNS),
    I have a tendency to think that the claim of a right to be heard implies the enforcement of opinion of others. You are right that no-one has to agree with any heard opinion, but we do have some right to avoid opinions we find ludicrous or offensive.

    #23 (Amri, again),
    I don’t get your worry with the line. As I said earlier, the line is, don’t assume the Brethren act with ill will or incredible ignorance. Nielsen assumes in the editorial that one or the other (implying the second) is the case. I don’t really know how he feels about the Brethren (as I haven’t yet listened to the RadioWest interview where this information is apparently disclosed), but I am willing to assume that he grossly misrepresented himself in the article (people do that). In any case, I don’t think that we should give rudeness a pass.

    For that matter, we don’t know the whole story here. Even in Bro. Nielsen’s posted response it is clear that there has been some behind-the-scenes back and forth with this. I don’t pretend to know it all. It is possible that if I did, I would find all of this more objectionable. At this point, I don’t choose to assume the worst.

    #24 (Stirling),
    I have read Bro. Nielsen’s responose and I don’t know what to think. I appreciate that he believes that academic freedom is being deeply curtailed at BYU, but I still don’t understand how that applies to his loss of contract. Is BYU hurt by frowning on personal criticism of the Brethren (which, ultimately, is what his editorial relies on)? I don’t really see how. I suppose that we should be robust enough to take it, but I don’t understand how this would lead a better educational experience for students.

    #34 (Jim),
    Actually I think that the market-driven model drives many of the decisions at BYU regarding hiring and firing. BYU doesn’t present itself as, primarily, a research university for a reason. It is far more interested in undergraduate education. To that end, in my experience, students wield a tremendous amount of power in determining hiring. Turn to Margaret Young’s examples in John Dehlin’s thread on this topic for proof beyond my words. I think it is likely that any pressure that Bro. Nielsen may have felt came from his students, not from his supervisors.

    #41 (Elizabeth),
    I think that we would be wrong to assume that there were no behind the scenes discussions. Indeed the evidence seems to suggest that they took place.

    #45 (queuno),
    I just don’t think that the Brethren need to rely on public executions in order to maintain order. We may have to part ways there.

    Thanks for all the comments! I appreciate your insights, even if I didn’t explicitly address them here.

  53. Dan: Mormons choose to be Mormons…

    The implication here is that this somehow makes Mormonism a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. This view is symptomatic of the problem I’m pointing at when I say, “The biggest problem I see with mormon culture is that too many forms of dissent are viewed as bad.”

    Jim Cabobe: And, just as much a disservice for BYU to do less than enforce their own rules.

    Sure, BYU is being consistent. But consistency is not always a virtue. One can, for example, be consistently evil. My point is that the cultural framework that makes such rules acceptable by a large population is a problematic one.

  54. Tim J. #46: there’s an immense amount of misunderstanding about Larry Summers’ departure from the position of president of Harvard, and it’s contributed substantially to a lot of perspectives on the Nielsen debate in the LDS blogs.

    First of all, university administrators are a different category from faculty members. When an individual faculty member says stuff, she isn’t usually seen as representing the university as an institution. The university president, by contrast, almost always is seen in that way. For those reasons, administrative contracts are typically completely different from faculty ones; university presidents are often not covered by academic freedom.

    Second, Larry Summers failed as president of Harvard at least as much because of his confrontational manner and unwillingness to try to deal with academic culture as for any ideological reasons. See this very useful article for an overview. The culture clash involving Summers included his statements about the possibility that women are inherently incapable of achieving the highest levels in mathematics and the sciences–but it also included the fact that Summers routinely insulted almost every professor he interacted with, including his own allies.

  55. HP/JDC #52, I agree that we have the right to avoid opinions. In this case, exercising that right would have involved seeing the headline of the editorial in question and turning the page in the newspaper without stopping to read.

    I don’t think that we have the right to make sure opinions we don’t like aren’t expressed, though. Wouldn’t you agree?

  56. DKL,
    I, for one, would have thought that you would have avoided references to Hitler. ;)

  57. DKL,

    Oh please. Dan nailed you and you know it.

  58. skl, I stand by my original answer to Dan.

    HP/JDC, I catch the reference. But just to be clear, I’m referring to the fact that democracy in Germany under the Weimar constitution was destabilized by the belief of many Germans that things like freedom of speech and freedom of the press were a bad thing. Hitler was able to capitalize on this, but the problem was a much larger one than the Hitler problem.

  59. HP/JDC, I should add (so that I don’t sound too serious) that I laughed out loud at your comment.

  60. Aaron Brown says:

    Dan said:
    “People can freely leave. Now, if they want to remain active and a member of a religion, they have to choose. Do they speak out and leave the religion? or do they stay quiet and a member? On some issues you just simply cannot have both.”

    I think this is nonsense, for the most part. What you’re suggesting is that because membership in the Mormon Church is technically optional, opting out of one’s membership is the only appropriate avenue for registering one’s dissent. Seriously, this is ludicrous.

    But whether Nielsen’s comments, and the venue in which he made them, and in light of his employment, were appropriate is a different issue in my mind.

    Aaron B

  61. DKL,
    I think that the only form of dissent that is actively discouraged is the kind that says “The Brethren suck!” It is awfully hard to engage in a discussion with someone whose main point is “You Suck!”

    I avoided the editorial for as long as I thought I could. Sometimes ideas are thrust upon us in spite of our preferences. Does this mean that I should have the right to silence those with whom I disagree? Of course not.

    I do agree with DKL and Aaron that a “love it or leave it” attitude is not helpful. Nor would I encourage it in this case. Unfortunately, I do not know all the forms and attempts that Bro. Nielsen has made in his case, so the one clear case that I have of his opinion may inadvertantly lead to a misreading.

    Tim J.,
    I don’t think that the breakdown on this is as simple as you make it. My feelings regarding the appropriateness of the legalization of long-term homosexual commitments is ambiguous, even when I am properly incensed. I couldn’t (and didn’t) write my congressman regarding the amendment because I didn’t honestly know what I felt about it. I still don’t.

  62. “the Church derives its tax exemption from the fact that it is a church under the Internal Revenue Code. It is not a 501(c)(3) organization.”

    My understanding is that the tax exemption for churches flows from section 501(c)(3), but that unlike other section 501(c)(3) organizations, churches do not have to apply to the IRS for the exemption. If they meet the statutory requirements, they are automatically exempt. At least that seems to be the position of the IRS in the booklet it published on tax issues for churches.

    Click to access p1828.pdf

    At pages 5 and 6, the booklet discusses the rules that prohibit propaganda or lobbying as a substantial part of the activities of a church.

    I think the last sentence of the Church’s statement on the Marriage Protection Amendment means exactly what it says, and that it was not driven by tax concerns. Certainly tax concerns did not prevent the Church from stating its position in favor of an amendment, and it did not prevent it from even more active and direct participation in supporting the California marriage proposition, or opposing the Equal Rights Amendment.

  63. I’ve been gone all day, so am entering this discussion late. I apologize if I repeat what others have said, but there is no way I am going to read every comment. Having said that:

    I can say and have said in class that I respectfully disagree with Elder McConkie, for instance. I don’t dismiss Elder McConkie’s ideas out of hand (in part, because I believe Elder McConkie was someone who took the scriptures very seriously, which is always a good thing), but I don’t feel compelled to accept everything that he wrote as the sole means to understand the Gospel, either. He and I can disagree, while still treating each other with respect and not assuming the worst of the other.

    I think this is a fairly poor example illustrating how dissent isn’t completely squelched at BYU. I would venture to guess that half of the current church leadership disagrees with Elder McConkie on more than one issue. President Hinkleys last statement on race relations is something I think Elder McConkie would have strongly disagreed with. After all, how much of Mormon Doctrine did President McKay have a problem with?

    Surely a better example exists than the one you provide. If not, then I am afraid of what that implies.

  64. Stirling says:

    JDC writes in #24:

    Is BYU hurt by frowning on personal criticism of the Brethren (which, ultimately, is what his editorial relies on)? I don’t really see how. I suppose that we should be robust enough to take it, but I don’t understand how this would lead a better educational experience for students.

    JDC, I read the previous two sentences as saying you don’t value academic freedom much. Is that a wrong interpretation of your viewpoint?
    Instead of firing someone who voices dissent from the majority political view (perhaps of the moment), why wouldn’t it better to engage the issues raised and win argument (if it can be won) in the marketplace of ideas?

    It seems like the “educational experience” of the student would be improved by learning how one can productively engage differing viewpoints in an effort to reach better clarity and understanding. Do you disagree?

  65. Matt Thurston says:

    Dan said: “Now, if they want to remain active and a member of a religion, they have to choose. Do they speak out and leave the religion? or do they stay quiet and a member? On some issues you just simply cannot have both.”

    Ahhh… Satan’s plan in the pre-existence perfectly articulated.

    Robert Rees has a good article in the current issue of Dialogue on this issue (actually reprinted from 1974)… quoting Hugh Nibley he says, “God not only desires a free discussion with [his children], he encourages it… Nibley then points out that Satan was not cast out of heaven for disagreeing with God, but for refusing to continue in a free discussion and examination of ideas and by resorting to vilence in a an attempt to get his own way and enforce his ideas on others. Nibley contrasts Satan with such prophets as Abraham and Enoch who entered into vigorous dialogue with God over things they did not understand or thought unfair. He says “God did not hold it against these men that they questioned him, but loved them for it…””

  66. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 65 Disfellowshipping those who express disagreement is a form of ecclesiatic violence. Dan’s assertion that nobody’s views are being squelched is just false. “Sure, go ahead and disagree! But if you do, you lose the Holy Spirit, your priesthood, your family in eternity….” To a serious Mormon, isn’t that a threat worse than death?

    Sure, other churches do the exact same thing, but generally in much less draconian fashion.

  67. I agree with the market-driven portrayal of BYU. I went there because after growing up in Southern California in an atmosphere that was often very hostile to my religion, I wanted to live and learn in a place that approaches the world from the context of my faith. I don’t think that was a fearful or narrow-minded approach to life; it was more rooted in a desire to experience an alternative to the atmosphere I grew up in.
    That said, I think there are a lot of people in Utah Valley who would do well to leave for a while and experience the world outside. I think they and the Church would benefit from that experience.
    Regarding the Nielsen op-ed, when I read that, I felt bad for the philosophy department for having hired someone with such bad thinking. Nielsen based his argument on some embarrasingly simplistic premises, all of which he accepts uncritically. If he had spent just a few minutes on Google researching the limits of what can be said about genetics and homosexuality, he would have had an entirely different op-ed to write. I hope.
    If I were taking classes in the BYU philosophy department, I would want to be taught by someone less dogmatic, and more careful and thorough in their reasoning.

  68. okay y’all, I guess I should clarify.

    Firstly, I am correct that you are free to leave the church at your own leisure if you do not feel it any longer represents the doctrine as you see it, right? that part is accurate.

    secondly, politically speaking, the church has come out and said they are neutral on almost every single issue. Even on this issue, in their news release they state: “The Church does not extend reprimands or ecclesiastical punishment to persons who choose not to support its views on these issues.” Which means that you can actually, and even publicly disagree with the church on this issue. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid not only was against it, but is probably the only Mormon on record to vote against it where it counts (in the Senate). Yet he is not being reprimanded for it. Nor does he leave the church for it.

    My use of the “free to leave” example is only to counter the continued comparison to being a citizen in a state whose opinions are being stifled and punished. In this case, I know many Mormons who speak out on this and are not reprimanded within the church, except by some ignorant Bishops, who don’t know about the church’s official position.

    That said, in the case of Mr. Nielson, the church, as far as we know, made no effort to punish him ecclesiastically, and again as far as we know, it was just the dean of his department that released him, not the Board of Directors or BYU Administration.

    The reason the church seeks unanimity among its leaders and tries to “stifle” dissent, as critics would say, or to appear unanimous, as apologetics say, is because of the Great Apostasy. Just what was it that led to the Great Apostasy? Was it not the introduction of the philosophies of Men? Was it not the introduction of Gnosticism, among many other forms of philosophies that attracted the eye, yet were not the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

    Today the church is building up the Kingdom of God in preparation for the Millenium. It cannot afford the introduction of the philosophies of men mingled with its scripture, so it speaks out more forcefully on some issues.

    Now Matt (#65) brings up Abraham and Enoch and their “wrestling with God”. But notice who they are wrestling with. God. Not, in the case of Abraham with Melchizedek, who was the leader at the time, or in Enoch’s time, with Jacob his father. But one on one with the Lord Himself. They were not public about their wrestling with the Lord, except long after in their writings. And even if they were, it was a private wrestling in which, in the end, the Lord won. I know of no scripture that shows a member (in any epoch) who argued with the prophet of the Lord and won. I’d be surprised if someone could find one.

    If we doubt the word of the prophet, the Lord has made clear what we should do:

    “5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

    6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.”

  69. Kevin Barney says:

    DavidH, thanks for your clarification to my clarification. I knew that churches got an automatic tax exemption and don’t have to file a form 1023 to apply for 501(c)(3) status, so I just assumed that the source of the exemption was elsewhere in the 501 or so range of IRC sections relating to tax-exempt organizations. But you’re right that the source of the exemption is still 501(c)(3).

    You know the old saying, when you assume you make an ass out of yourself, or something like that.

  70. I’m thinking more and more about the issue of wrestling with God. I’m going to do some research into this and ponder on it some more. It seems like it might help out members today who are having a tough time reconciling their personal beliefs to those of the prophets…..

  71. I have to agree fully with what Aaron B in #19.

    Maybe I’m wrong (I hope not), but I think it would have been possible for a BYU professor to write an op-ed piece opposing the amendment and not lose his or her job over it. But when you, in effect, call those who disagree with you immoral, and when you question the church leaders’ motives, not just their policies, you’re asking for the kind of reaction he got. And while support for a constitutional amendment is a matter of policy, not doctrine, the law of chastity (part of which is that homosexual relations aren’t the equivalent of heterosexual relations) is a clear doctrinal teaching of the church, and Nielsen came awfully close to trying to trying to undermine that doctrine.

    Nielsen’s article wasn’t well-reasoned, and I don’t think it was fair. If I were to make a case that BYU is unreasonably limiting academic freedom, this is not the supporting example I would use.

  72. Kristine says:

    Tim J. (#46), Larry Summers was NOT ousted for public comments. He had been on the outs with the faculty for years (pretty much the whole time he was there); his comments about women in science were impolitic, but certainly not the only reason he was dismissed. (There are professors at Harvard–Charles Murray, for instance–whose views are much more controversial and farther outside of the mainstream of Harvard faculty opinion, and they stay and do just fine.) The situation just isn’t analagous.

  73. Kristine says:

    crap. I hate it when I toss off a hasty response, *then* notice that RT (#54) has already said what I said more cogently and with useful links.

  74. “I know of no scripture that shows a member (in any epoch) who argued with the prophet of the Lord and won.”

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by “argue.”

    Galatians 2:

    “11 But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.

    “12 For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.

    “13 And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their adissimulation•.

    “14 But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?”

    Exodus 18

    “13 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to ajudge• the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.

    “14 And when Moses’ father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?

    “15 And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to aenquire• of God:

    “16 When they have a amatter•, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.

    “17 And Moses’ father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.

    “18 Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is atoo• heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.

    “19 Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee”

    See also David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.

  75. Stirling,
    I wouldn’t mind dealing with the issues that Bro. Nielsen brought forward in his commentary if they truly dealt with a. his stated topic or b. something more substantive than name-calling. As I expressed to DKL, it is hard to argue with someone whose primary point is that you are an idiot. As to whether or not his tone or form of argumentation is worthwhile, I think that we would both agree that such tactics are below the standards of academic discourse. As to his argument, it may have a point, but he doesn’t really bother to make it. I have no issue with the free exchange of ideas; However, I would appreciate it if it was done with a little courtesy.

    So, as stated above, my problem has much more to do with presentation than argument. His presentation clouds whatever good points that he was trying to make. And, if you wish to call the Brethren (or anyone who disagrees with you) immoral, you need to come up with a better argument than “those who disagree with me are either ignorant or malicious fear-mongerers.”

  76. This whole episode makes me sad. Sad because Brother Nielsen will probably find some difficulty now in fellowshiping with the Saints. Sad because the events will contribute to the acrimony in the Church already surrounding this issue. Sad because an institution I love, BYU, is getting a lot of rotten press (and this can’t be laid entirely at the feet of an evil press corps—I’m also sad because BYU evidently STILL haven’t gotten any decent PR folks, this being only the latest in a decade-long series of PR debacles). Sad because I’m desperately looking for intelligent perspectives to shed light on my profound confusion surrounding this issue, and Nielsen contributed far more heat than light to the debate. But mostly sad because a promising opportunity for a real examination of academic freedom at BYU—at a moment when, perhaps, gains might have been made—has been squandered on an impolitic, non-academic, and ultimately unilluminating Op/Ed in the SL Tribune (!).

    I have to put my prejudices on the table, I suppose: Nielsen is less a philosopher than a manager, and his work, in my view, is not especially academic. But I guess that should be beside the point: even business people and soft-core scholarship deserves academic freedom, I suppose—although any responsible discussion of this case should concede that because Nielsen was not tenured (or tenure-track) and did not produce serious academic work, it’s an imperfect vehicle for discussion academic freedom. But because he’s managed to grab so much publicity—and his agreeing to give various interviews and publish correspondence after the fact suggests to me that he’s either seeking either crusader or celebrity status—the BYU administration will likely go into defensive mode, and any real exploratory disucssion of academic freedom will be shelved for another ten years.

    It is possible to “disagree” with the Brethren—and to do so in the very heart of BYU. Look at BYU Studies, for example, which very carefully, responsibly, and un-self-seekingly publishes many scholarly revisions, refinements, and quiet contradictions of official views. And this care, responsibility and discretion are not needed to protect the fragile egos of the Brethren—at least not usually, and not in the cases with which I am familiar—but to protect the faith of members who, for a variety of reasons (some of which, yes, can be laid at the feet of official Church policies and attitudes), have difficulty dealing with contradictions in official utterances.

  77. Thanks Rosalynde. Amen and amen.

  78. I think that, for the most part, this is a case of the method (i.e., forum, tone and timing), rather than the substance, being the real problem.

    For example, a couple of years ago a BYU Prof. publicized his conclusion that homosexuality is biologically based and expressed his hope that the “LDS community” would change how it deals with the issue.

    See: http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/49488

    From the article:

    “He expressed his deep concern about the harmful opinions and actions of the LDS community. “In our LDS community there is not much discourse on this issue,” Bradshaw said. When there is, it is “not usually civil and it’s not always informed.”

    Bradshaw said the LDS community must reach out and include those who are homosexual, because no encouraging evidence suggests the possibility of behavioral and biological changes.

    Traditional means employed to overcome homosexuality include therapy, psychoanalysis, hypnosis, group therapy and religious group therapy.

    Bradshaw said many of those people who have experienced success with these methods for a period eventually revert to homosexual tendencies. He said it is virtually impossible for many to change their orientation, despite their righteous lifestyle.

    Bradshaw referred to an article in the “Ensign” that says the atonement is a sufficient means to resolve the problems of this world.

    Bradshaw said though he is absolutely committed to the atonement of Jesus Christ, he feels this attitude is detrimental to those who will cope with homosexuality for the remainder of their lives.

    Bradshaw estimated there are 132,200 gay members of the LDS church, or six members in every ward. Consequently, homosexuality affects 500,000 Latter-day Saints who have gay family members.

    Bradshaw said he hopes the LDS community will change its attitudes towards homosexuality and spend some time worrying about those 130,000 members of the church.”

    Bradshaw’s comments obviously fly in the face of how a majority of Mormons view the issue and explicit or implicit Church teachings. And apparently this hasn’t affected his position at “the BYU”. Looks like Prof. Bradshaw is still trucking along:


    I think this is an interesting counterpoint to Nielsen’s example.

  79. I remember back when I was darkening the hallways of the Spanish department at BYU, in Dr. Forster’s class on Sor Juana (one of the classic “rebel against the institution, if you don’t have a leg to stand on” examples).

    We were talking about Farr and Knowlton, et al, and came to the conclusion that the Spanish and Portuguese Department was just as controversial as any other department on campus, but flew under the radar because we did it in a foreign language…

  80. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree with Rosalynde and Travis. The Op-Ed piece reflected a remarkable lack of political adroitness, which, for better or for worse, can be a fatal flaw in someone who wants to teach at BYU. I happen to agee with Nielsen in substance, but the substance could have been expressed in a more sensitive manner that would not have cost him his job.

  81. Kevin, can we even say we agree with Nielsen in substance? What was the substance of his remarks? It seems to me that his op-ed so intermingled critiques of the Brethren with critiques of their policies that even if I opposed the Amendment I wouldn’t know where to start with Nielsen.

  82. Mark Butler says:

    I have to say that the instinct not to dismiss Nielsen, given the seriousness of what he said with regard to prophetic authority to even *speak out* on the matter, for purely PR reasons seems to me highly misguided. There are far more important principles at stake that a little bit of bad PR or temporary difficulty for BYU graduate placement.

    I can hardly imagine a self-respecting Church refraining from taking such an action largely due to public relations considerations. PR might affect the manner or mode by which they did it, but the effect would be the same. PR rarely rises to the level of necessity unless feelings are deeply held by a large percentage of the community.

    If I were I member of another faith (as opposed to the Church of all things secular) I would regard the Church as lacking institutional self confidence if they kept employing someone show demonstrates such public contempt for the Church’s reason for being. In short, among the civilized dismissing Nielsen is a sign of our seriousness, and the opposite would make us look like a Church decaying from within, without any leadership of consequence. A chameleon denomination is no denomination at all.

  83. Nat Whilk says:

    Matt Thurston wrote: “Ahhh… Satan’s plan in the pre-existence perfectly articulated.

    “Interferences with our freedom do not deprive us of our free agency. When Pharaoh put Joseph in prison, he restricted Joseph’s freedom, but he did not take away his free agency. When Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, he interfered with their freedom to engage in a particular activity at a particular place, but he did not take away their free agency. During my nine years at BYU I read many letters to the editor in the _Universe_ that protested various rules as infringements of free agency. I am glad I don’t see those funny arguments anymore, probably because I no longer have to read the letters to the editor in the _Universe_.”
    (Dallin H. Oaks, BYU Speeches, 1987-88, p. 44.)

  84. Rosalynde,
    Thank you! I don’t think of the Brethren as having “fragile egos” that require buttressing, but I can see that reading in what I wrote. I brought it up because Bro. Nielsen appeared to be directly attacking the Brethren, which, I believe, is the one place profs at BYU are not allowed to go. Ultimately, I too see this as more of a bottom-up than a top-down directive.

    Also, thanks to all who provided counterexamples to Bro. Nielsen’s case. Heck, thanks to those who disagree with me, too.

  85. Mark Butler says:

    Elder Oaks, regrettably in that speech defined agency rather wrong – as if it were a synonym for free will. No amount of restrictions can take away ones will. However all restrictions are constraints on agency – indeed they define what agency is, namely legitimate stewardship, first stewardship over one’s own person (“agency unto oneself”) and secondarily other legitimate stewardship and responsibility.

    So he is quite right that agency is not synonymous with freedom, but he outlined the wrong answer – neither is it synonymous with will, rather it is synonymous with stewardship – delegated discretion within certain bounds and conditions. God did not give us our will, but he did give us our stewardships – the boundaries of which are maintained through suffering sacrifice both on heaven and on earth.

    Liberty, by the way is a related albeit looser concept – confirm thy souls in self control, liberty *in* law. Not license, or freedom without responsibility, but liberty to pursue reasonable ends within the bounds of reasonable constraints.

    Agency, “moral agency” as the scripture says, is more than liberty, agency entails moral responsibility to magnify ones stewardship, to administer it in a way pleasing unto God, not by commandment alone, but by creative exercise of free will – the spirit of the higher law of Christ within the reasonable bounds of the lower law of liberty and mutual restraint.

    The lower law is thou shalt not. The higher law is do as thou wilt, only let it be good (and don’t trash the lower law either, but fulfil it).

  86. Bradshaw’s comments obviously fly in the face of how a majority of Mormons view the issue and explicit or implicit Church teachings. And apparently this hasn’t affected his position at “the BYU”. Looks like Prof. Bradshaw is still trucking along:


    I think this is an interesting counterpoint to Nielsen’s example.

    Well, he wasn’t an adjunct and he wasn’t calling those he disagreed with immoral directly.

    On the other hand, this appears to be a great marketing move by Nielson. You need to review the status and ecology of adjuncts vs. tenure track. This may shift him from the one to the other.

  87. Nat Whilk says:

    So, Mark Butler, does your superior understanding of the true semantics of “agency” lead you to the conclusion that Elder Oaks was also wrong when he said that when negative consequences are attached to certain actions by the Church, BYU, or otherwise, that does not constitute an implementation of Satan’s plan?

  88. Kevin Barney says:

    Right, Steve, the only “substance” I was referring to was opposition to the amendment.

  89. Mark Butler says:

    Nice tone you have there Nat. I made an actual argument for an understanding that reflects Elder Packer’s thoughts on the subject, the dictionary and legal definitions, Western heritage, what agency meant in Joseph Smith’s time, and the internal evidence of the scriptures, and all you can ask is a question the answer to which is more than manifest in my exposition.

  90. Mark Butler says:

    The Lord said:

    And again I say unto you, those who have been scattered by their enemies, it is my will that they should continue to importune for redress, and redemption, by the hands of those who are placed as rulers and are in authority over you—

    According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles;

    That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.

    Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.

    Note that “moral agency” is the only qualified use of the term in the scriptures – “free agency” never appears, because it is redundant. All agency entails freedom, or rather discretion within certain bounds and conditions.

    And here the purpose of *moral* agency is the same as the purpose of the Constitution – that every man may be accountable for his *own* sins in the day of judgment – slavery, bondage, and other ultramontane forms of domination just weren’t cutting it. Why? Because they allowed insufficient room for moral *responsibility*.

    Agency isn’t about unqualified freedom. Elder Packer practically never says the word except with its D&C 101 prefix – it is “moral agency” – the libertarian inspired concept of “free agency” is a misunderstanding that takes all the stewardship or responsibility out of agency and representation.

    Freedom is individualist and a-moral. Agency is interpersonal and extremely moral. But not bondage, rather Christian liberty – a subject that D&C 101 & 134 should give us ample room for a proper conception of.

  91. Earl Benson says:

    I was wondering just what Bro Nielsen could have said that would not have resulted in his termination?

    It seems to me that if he had expressed his opinion (1) without any reference to the church or its authorities and (2) without insinuation that those who hold ideas contrary to his are immoral… then he would still have his position.

    Is this far off the mark?

  92. Steve Evans says:

    So, Mark Butler, does your superior understanding of the true semantics of “agency” lead you to the conclusion that the Lord was also wrong?

    heh heh heh. I don’t really think that at all, it was just such a mean thing to say that I couldn’t resist.

  93. Elisabeth says:

    BYU faculty and affiliates don’t have a duty to publicly defend statements made by the First Presidency, but it would be constructive if we heard from a BYU professor why he or she supports the Church’s position against SSM.

    I say this because I think many church members are trying to find a reasonable way to approach this issue, and I can imagine a BYU professor being able to provide a reasoned argument in support of the FP that would carry a lot of weight with members, and help them better articulate reasons why to stand against SSM.

  94. Kevin, so now we’re justifying the missteps of our leaders by talking about the “remarkable lack of political adroitness” of their victims? WTF? Was that the problem that Christ had with the Pharisees? That they lacked “political adroitness”? I’d love to see what judgment day looks like if “political adroitness” has anything to do with right and wrong. Surely there’s no greater sign of apostasy than the need to preserve the illusion of vassal homage to our leaders.

  95. Mark Butler says:

    Now Elder Oaks talk I agree with in nearly all pertinent respects, as long as one does a near global substitution for “free will” instead of “free agency”.

    The problem is that Elder Oaks claims that God gave us the *power* to choose, which is a direct contradiction of Joseph Smith’s views on the everlastingly eternal nature of the soul. Can one really imagine a soul without free will?

    Now one might say, perhaps he really means it in the sense of liberty, i.e. free to choose without being *acted upon*, except by the judgment at the great and last day. That is what I thought too,
    until later comments clearly indicate he defines agency as synonym for free will.

    First, because free agency is a God-given precondition to the purpose of mortal life, no person or organization can take away our free agency in mortality.

    Second, what can be taken away or reduced by the conditions of mortality is our freedom, the power to act upon our choices. Free agency is absolute, but in the circumstances of mortality freedom is always qualified.
    (Dallin Oaks, Free Agency and Freedom, 11 Oct 1987)

    Now that is true of free will, but of agency it is lacking. Satan’s whole objective is to destroy agency – to take away moral responsibility and the necessary freedom to exercise it in context.

    There is no such thing as *absolute agency*, and there never has been. That is like a blank check on the exchequer. There is such a thing as absolute will, indeed free will defines existence.

    God did not create our persons ex nihilo or out of some quasi-animate stuff. We are co-eternal with him. The only tenable conception of agency consistent with the scriptures and Joseph Smith’s commentary is agency as stewardship, or bounded discretion either on behalf of another or on behalf of oneself.

  96. Kevin Barney says:

    Earl #91, that’s the kind of direction I was thinking of.

  97. Earl,
    I don’t believe that 1 would have been necessary to avoid termination, but 2 definitely was.

  98. Mark Butler says:

    Note that Oaks implies that God can take away our free will, our power to choose, out of mortality. Sort of like Brigham Young’s opinion about souls being torn apart and returned to their native element. This is not such a big deal, except these kind of things can make big differences in any sort of systematic theology.

  99. A basic problem that gays have with the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” approach is that it’s a just a lie. Nowhere is this illustrated more plainly than in the response that our leaders have to criticism from within the church.

  100. Steve Evans says:

    aw DKL, now you’re just rabble-rousing. boo!

  101. DKL,
    No one here is arguing that we need to “preserve the illusion of vassal homage to our leaders”. I am the one who brought up “political adroitness” here (though I didn’t coin the term in this context), because I am willing to give Bro. Nielsen the benefit of the doubt as regards his position on the Brethren (ie. I am willing to believe that the position he espouses of Apostolic incompetence is derived from a poor choice of wording, not actual sentiment). His published response seems to argue against this reading, but I am willing for the time being to extend it.

  102. Mark Butler says:

    That is D&C 101:76-80 that I quoted above by the way. Note that the Lord does not say he gave us agency in order to *exist*, rather that he granted us agency in order to be *accountable*.

  103. Actually, Steve, I’m trying to make some serious points.

    First, my point about “love the sinner, hate the sin” is this: The leaders react to criticism from within as though people can’t dislike their opinions without being disloyal to them. They are, in effect, acting as though one cannot “hate the sin” (find their opinions to be destructive or harmful–make no mistake, they sometimes are) while loving the leaders (i.e., being loyal to them). But on the other hand, they glibly say to gays that they love them in spite of the harsh criticism of their behavior. They can’t have it both ways.

    Second, when we’re talking about people who are claiming to act on behalf of Jesus and in Jesus’s name, then the claim that whether you act with “political adroitness” is a major factor in passing judgment on people’s actions (as the Church has done by determining Neilson’s employment status) doesn’t pass the laugh test.

    Third, the principle of common consent makes the the membership key arbiters of apostolic incompetence. Attempts by the church structure to quiet open discussion of the issue runs counter to that principle.

  104. The Apocalypse is nigh… I agree with every word that proceedeth forth out of the mouth of DKL.

  105. Elisabeth says:

    Hey, Ronan – nice to see you coming up for air between World Cup games! :)

  106. Mark Butler says:

    Here is Elder Packer:

    Some who do not understand the doctrinal part do not readily see the relationship between obedience and agency. And they miss one vital connection and see obedience only as restraint. They then resist the very thing that will give them true freedom. There is no true freedom without responsibility, and there is no enduring freedom without a knowledge of the truth. The Lord said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31–32.)

    The general quickly understood a truth that is missed even by some in the Church. Latter-day Saints are not obedient because they are compelled to be obedient. They are obedient because they know certain spiritual truths and have decided, as an expression of their own individual agency, to obey the commandments of God.

    We are the sons and daughters of God, willing followers, disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and “under this head are [we] made free.” (Mosiah 5:8.)
    (Boyd K. Packer, Agency and Control, April 3, 1983

    Here is Spencer J. Condie:

    The Price of Agency

    I am indebted to President Boyd K. Packer, who made us aware of the fact that the term free agency appears nowhere in holy writ. Instead, the scriptures generally speak of agency or free will, but when agency is modified, it is referred to as “moral agency” (D&C 101:78; emphasis added). Because the term free agency has been used by various modern prophets, I use the terms free agency and moral agency interchangeably, aware that the latter term is more correct.

    The plan of salvation provided the means whereby the spiritual offspring of our Heavenly Father (see Acts 17:28–29) could come to earth to gain a physical body so “that [we] might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25), for when the body and spirit are “separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33–34).

    This wonderful plan of happiness was provided at a very high price. As the Apostle Paul taught the Corinthians: “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19–20; emphasis added).

    That price, of course, was the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, …
    (Spencer J. Condie, Agency: The Gift of Choices, Ensign, Sept 1995

    Now of course here we could go into the details of *why* agency has a price, why agency entails moral responsibility, why moral agency is a more appropriate term than free agency (which nomenclature is no longer current in the Church), but I trust my point is clear.

  107. Mark Butler says:

    DKL, For the law of common consent to be valid in fundamentals, a vote must not only include those here on earth, but the hosts of heaven as well. Every last soul here on earth could apostasize without modifying the position of the heavenly council on fundamentals.

    Indeed I might suggest that the gift of the Holy Ghost is not just their for us to feel *his* opinion on the subject, but the unified voice of the endless choirs above – who cheer and shout for joy whenever they hear the truth, the moral truth of the law and necessities of heaven spoken in clarity and love.

  108. So multiple BCC bloggers — Steve, Aaron, Kevin, etc — think the Neilsen decision is okay. What are we to make of that? Perhaps that Neilsen crossed the line between dissent and stupidity. . .

  109. DKL,

    “The leaders react to criticism from within as though people can’t dislike their opinions without being disloyal to them.”

    Which leaders? Who are you referring to? Local? General? I’ve been talking about an interpretation of a possible limit on academic freedom at BYU. You seem to be talking about behavior in the church as a whole. Are you aware of some form of church discipline taking place in the Nielsen affair of which the rest of us are unaware?

    Aside from that, my point all along has been that Nielsen, in addition to disagreeing with their opinions, actually is being “disloyal” in that he seems to be publically saying that they are incapable of fulfilling their calling adequately. He does not initially appear to be fulfilling the role of loyal opposition. He portrays himself simply as opposition, who coincidentally might sit through conference on occasion.

    “when we’re talking about people who are claiming to act on behalf of Jesus and in Jesus’s name, then the claim that whether you act with “political adroitness” is a major factor in passing judgment on people’s actions (as the Church has done by determining Neilson’s employment status) doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

    Again, you are making claims here that are not born out by the evidence that we currently have. Hiring/Firing of adjuncts rarely involves General Authoritys or other ecclesiastical officials (assuming that the adjunct bears a temple recommend). That said, I didn’t make claim above. If he was honestly expressing himself in his editorial, he seems to believe the Brethren to be incompetent. I introduced the idea of him not being politically adroit, because I supposed that he might not actually have understood the obvious implications of his own words. It is and has been a bad patch set out in my attempt to give him a generous reading.

    “the principle of common consent makes the the membership key arbiters of apostolic incompetence. Attempts by the church structure to quiet open discussion of the issue runs counter to that principle.”
    This is your best point and I’ll have to think about it. I know that this is not the way we currently discuss the principle. It seems to me that “righteous dominion” and the principle of common consent are not divisible in any real sense. In other words, the church works in an environment of both inspired leadership and faithful devotees. Without one or the other, it would fail. So I am not sure if I believe it possible to argue for the existence of one without the other, which may be Bro. Nielsen’s ultimate point (I didn’t leave the Church, it left me). I am suspicious of such claims, but I may need to re-evaluate my suspicions.

  110. “the principle of common consent makes the the membership key arbiters of apostolic incompetence.”

    I think you fundamentally misunderstand the role of common consent in the church, DKL. We’re not voting on anything here.

  111. Mark Butler says:

    We “voted” on Adam-God and Brigham Young lost. Classic example of common consent. Brigham Young was quoted in an 1870 Deseret News article as how dissapointed he was the Saints would not follow him the way they followed Joseph Smith.

    Of course that was a *new* rather obscure and hard to be understood doctrine that conflicted with scripture, not a hallmark of revealed religion for millennia.

  112. Mark Butler says:

    He mentioned that doctrine in particular, by the way.

  113. You all have done a nice job of defining common consent out of existence. I can’t recognize anything relevant at all in what you all have said. So let my try to clarify:

    The basic idea is (a) if the 1st presidency statement wasn’t put to a vote, then it isn’t binding under any plausible church political theory, and (b) in order for a vote (or anything potentially votable) to be meaningful, there has to be an environment that fosters open discussion of the issue.

    In this situation, there was (a) no vote on the issue. Thus, it can’t count as anything more than apostolic opinion and is therefore as open to criticism as my own opinion. This means that disciplinary actions taken on this constitute abuse-of-authority issues.

    Moreover, there is (b) not an environment that fosters open discussion on the issue insofar as the issue involves BYU professors expressing their opinions in public venues.

    Mark Butler, what does common consent have to do with spirits? Apparently, you conceive of the church as a kind of spiritual Chicago, where the votes of dead people determine the outcome of elections.

    HP/JDC, it’s much simpler than you’re letting on. Let’s suppose that the firing was done by BYU bureaucrats with no input (direct or indirect) from higher ups. To the extent that higher ups (e.g., apostles or seventies) can intervene in these situations to correct and they do not, they are culpable for them. Moreover, BYU’s president is a de facto general authority when he is not an actual one.

    This is pretty basic stuff, guys. We’re talking about the fact that BYU is an institution wherein fear, doubt, and uncertainty are used to enforce uniformity of expressed opinion on matters far outside the realm of theological importance.

  114. Oh the convoluted logic.

    I’m spinning one of my own, just now.

    I am imagining a fantasy in which a group of enemies of the church conspire to discredit the church in the popular press. One of their approaches is to infiltrate the faculty at Brigham Young University with sleepers who can be called to action by the anti campaign perhaps years down the road. These sleeper agents have insinuated themselves deep into the organization, by projecting a facade of loyalty while secretly developing openings for putting the church into a situation of compromise.

  115. Mark Butler says:

    Dead people are not dead. I do indeed conceive of heaven as a republic, and the church on earth as a federal subdivision thereof. So common consent down here may veto a *new* understanding or local policy, but no single state (especially one in our moral condition) can amend the constitution of heaven.

    I consider this principle to be not self evident from an original perspective, but rather established by divine design, and ratified long ago by common consent in the heavenly councils above. It is reflected in our very biology, we cannot legislate against it now, certainly not down here. The Church of the Saints on Earth, speaking collectively cannot change the plan of salvation, but we can certainly change a variety of implementational aspects.

    The fact that the seat of the heavenly republic is in heaven and not down on earth is reflected in the D&C 107 structure for the Church, where any one of the three leading quorums has plenipotentiary authority, acting unanimously without magisterial opposition, and any two are sufficient to conclude any question when acting in righteousness.

    Now if we could gather the membership of the Church and take a *unanimous* vote in favor of a certain principle, we would probably get our way (even if it was wrong), just as the unanimous vote of the FP and Q12 is adequate, with the possibility that they are wrong in some point or another. But ultimately questions of right and wrong are not decided here on earth, but in heaven. Not in the land of the dead, but the land of the living – living more fully and seeing more clearly than we do.

  116. DKL,
    I am confused. Is there a vast conspiracy or isn’t there? How come I know outspoken Dems on staff at BYU, whose students know that they are outspoken Dems? How come I know professors with wild theological ideas, who have spoken about them at BYU-sanctioned clubs? How come Prof. Bradshaw is quoted in the official school paper? If there is a vast conspiracy, it is doing a spotty job of minding everyone else’s P’s and Q’s.

    For that matter, you have an awful lot of insight into the current goings on at BYU for someone who doesn’t work there and hasn’t worked there (a level of insight only rivalled perhaps by that of Steve EM). I am still having a hard time seeing Bro. Nielsen’s dismissal as a case of church discipline, which seems to be how you are reading it.

    Is there a difference between expressing the opinion that “I disagree with the Brethren and here is why…” and “The Brethren are incapable of finding their bottoms with both hands”? Bro. Nielsen’s op-ed is more like the second than the first.

    Regarding your understanding of common consent, you are right that it doesn’t apply here in your sense, so I don’t understand why you brought it up.

    “We’re talking about the fact that BYU is an institution wherein fear, doubt, and uncertainty are used to enforce uniformity of expressed opinion on matters far outside the realm of theological importance.”

    Being here, I get the sense that this is changing. While this attitude seems to still exist, my feeling is that it comes from a desire to appease students who don’t want to have to think too hard, not as a result of pressure from above.

  117. Mark Butler says:

    That should be “mortal condition”, though “moral condition” works as well.

  118. We’re talking about the fact that BYU is an institution wherein fear, doubt, and uncertainty are used to enforce uniformity of expressed opinion on matters far outside the realm of theological importance.

    Yah, sure — BYU is a gulag prison camp. Walk the campus any time. You can see the starved inmates in shackles. Nonconformists are lined up for daily beatings in the public square.

  119. Sorry, DKL, I misread your description of common consent. It does apply. Um, that said, I still don’t think that it means what you think it means.

    In any case, Nielsen didn’t argue with the FP statement. He dismissed it out of hand and moved on to the twisted reasons it was issued.

    If I was to ignore your arguments and insist that you are now posting only because you can’t stand to be wrong and that your posts are without merit as a result, should that be construed as an attack on your position or you yourself?

  120. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 113 I was thinking the same thing in response to all these people saying “It’s not the Church, it’s BYU!” My impression is that the Brethren exert very tight control over BYU via its Board, president, et. al. So in fact it’s quite reasonable to assume that these high profile decisions reflect the opinion of SLC, and just like everything else with the Church we usually never know the details of exactly who decides what. This is very different from the Catholic universities in the U.S., some of which clearly are not in the hands of Rome. It does appear that BYU faculty are held to a higher standard of conformity than the average member, although Grant H. Palmer might beg to differ.

  121. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 115 “Dead people are not dead.”

    Your sententce provided my big laugh of the day, with all due respect. (I actually agree with you, for what little that’s worth!) Maybe we should stop calling them “dead people,” then.

    Man, I do enjoy the bloggernacle.

  122. HP/JDC If I was to ignore your arguments and insist that you are now posting only because you can’t stand to be wrong and that your posts are without merit as a result, should that be construed as an attack on your position or you yourself?

    Either way, wouldn’t most people would think you are right? (just kidding) It would be an attack on me, of course. But I’m not in a position of authority over you, so that it doesn’t much matter how I respond. Even so, how I respond to you is, in part, determined by how Christ-like I am.

    It’s easy to talk about Neilson’s firing in abstract terms and compare it to church discipline. But we’re talking about employment, and this has a potential bearing on his ability to support his family. I, for one, would much rather be excommunicated than lose my job.

    Because I’m in the tech industry, getting excommunicated does not risk my ability to cover medical bills, keep a roof over my family’s head, and feed my kids. If I were a professional mormon studies academic or a BYU professor, the church could use it’s influence to impact my ability to cover medical bills, keep a roof over my family’s head, and feed my kids. But I ask myself, “What is wrong with these people?” when the church repeatedly uses its influence this way, and everyone says, “he was asking for it” or “there are certain acceptable ways to disagree…”. Why is everyone afraid to admit that what has happened is an abuse of authority and a palpable evil?

  123. Mark Butler says:

    Well I, for one, would rather lose a thousand jobs than see my family dwindle in unbelief due to my excommunication. Excommunication may indeed be remedied with time and understanding, but it is symbolic of being cast out – so intransigent that one is not fit for the society of the righteous. One had better be awfully sure he has heaven on his side before pushing an agenda that far – because heaven is contingent on coming to atleast a dynamic, living unity of the faith and promoting an unyielding position that the vast majority of Saints disagree with (with regard to the injustice of eccesiastical authority) is a good sign, if not a sure sign that unless one repents he will find himself on the outside looking in.

    Unless you have heaven on your side, or at least have some hope of persuading heaven to be on your side, attacking the Church as an institution, as if not only the leaders, but the vast majority of members are acting immorally, is indeed the road to apostasy, to forming an alternate kingdom to rival that of the Most High. And who indeed ultimately wants to fight against God – to quibble ones way if not into outer darkness, then into some sort of sub-telestial limbo, filled with bitter recriminations for the rest of eternity? If you will not stand behind the Lord’s Church now, then when?

  124. Mark Butler says:

    So one might well go ahead and make the case that heaven is indeed on one’s side, but a case that respects the authority and integrity of the Church, a case that recognizes that *even if you are right* the inspiration to that effect may take decades if not centuries to effect. That the unity of the faith is a vital interest to the Church and is indeed composed of the bonds that make us free. That a kingdom or society where ever man or woman was a law unto himself would not be a principality at all, but chaos writ large.

    Death, destruction, anarchy are the true reactionaries of the universe – rolling the clock back to the days before heaven began. Conservatives are the progressives – those wanting to preserve the heritage of the heavenly hosts, to build a new and grander civilization according to the pattern the Lord has laid out. Untrammeled liberty is not what the war in heaven was fought for, nor for arm twisting coercion – but for the vital balance in between, a balance that can be as easily destroyed from either the right or the left – through the end of liberty or the undue promotion thereof.

  125. Mark Butler says:

    “every man or woman”

  126. Well, Mark, one reason why I don’t find the possibility as daunting as you is that I’ve got a pretty good tolerance for being kicked out of places. Nevertheless, I do value my membership. And to be sure, I’d be very disappointed to be ex’d. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world. If, on the other hand, the church inserted it’s authority to interfere with my career path or my employment in another way–that would put it on a moral level with HUAC and their black lists. The first Pauline epistle to Timothy is as correct then as it is now: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” So yes, I value my ability to provide for my family more than I value my membership in God’s Kingdom. And I think everyone should.

  127. Mark Butler says:

    But the Church is not blacklisting a person, it is simply saying that BYU professorship comes with certain responsibilities – a stewardship if you will, not a blank check. Those who do not want to implicitly represent the Church should work elsewhere. Religious universities are all like this or they cease to be religious.

  128. Mark Butler says:

    Most professors consider themselves to be the legislators of humanity. That is not how it works in the Church – the legislation passed in heaven long ago. Now it is time for the implementation – an executive branch function. No executive branch can stand with unvarnished disloyalty and disobedience. There is no divine right of teachers, they may creatively elaborate, expound, embellish, etcetera, but the core curriculum of heaven has already been set. Anyone who does not agree with the fundamentals of celestial civilization seems hopelessly out of touch, hardly fit to intelligently expound on its first principles.

  129. Mark Butler says:

    And indeed the perspective of Brigham Young is that all true scholarship is an elaboration of the gospel. Theology at the core, then true philosophy, and then every other field.

    “If an elder shall give a lecture on astronomy, chemistry, or geology, our religion embraces it all. It matters not what the subject be if it tends to improve the mind, exalt the feelings, and enlarge the capacity. The truth that is in all the arts and sciences forms part of our religion”(Brigham Young, JD 2:93-94).

    Here is Brigham Young’s perspective on education:

    “True there are many in the world who profess to be what we call infidels, who have no knowledge of anything beyond the researches of their education, who have not the faculty to pry into and understand things beyond what they can see with their natural eyes, hear with their ears, or comprehend with their natural understandings; yet there are but few that are really left indeed in the dark, left to be in reality what they profess to be. And those few have not one particle of good sound reason, not one argument on their side, to prove that a licentious, ungodly life is of any advantage to any person on the earth, but will argue the point, and that strenuously, that strict morality should be observed among all intelligences, and an honest bearing, an upright walk, and a gentlemanly conversation, not giving way to vulgarity and foul language, nor doing anything in the dark that they would not be willing to be scanned in daylight. For all this they argue strenuously, and yet say that they know nothing about God and eternity. We are here, we exist on the earth. I am sure that I am alive, for I can see others living. I am endowed with a certain degree of intelligence, where did it come from? An infidel might say, “I do not know” Where did I originate? “I do not know.” Who was the maker and former of all we can see? “I do not know.” Yet those very characters will argue the necessity of a moral life, of an honest upright walk, one with the other.

    But what are their arguments and what are their hopes? Why, they say, “We are to-day, to-morrow, perhaps, we shall be no more. We came into existence, but how we cannot tell. We have no faith, or belief, or confidence in the God that you Christians talk about; we have no confidence in His providence; by chance we are, and by chance we shall go and be no more.” Do you not perceive that their arguments land them in the vortex of ignorance and unbelief, of misery and annihilation? Go into the world and observe those who do not possess principles that reach into eternity, and that are in eternity, principles by which they exist and by which God created all things, and you will see that those principles are lost to them, and that, whether they believe in those principles or not, their course and profession will land them without an existence, or the possession of the least thing in heaven, earth, or hell.

    These reflections bring to my understanding the greatest ignorance that can be manifested by an inteligent [intelligent] people, those in particular that are now before me, who have had the privilege of the holy Gospel and neglected their duty, turned away from the holy commandments, and ceased to live their religion in every point; such conduct does manifest the greatest weakness, ignorance, foolery, and wickedness that can be produced by intelligences. If you comprehend my ideas you will agree with me, for no sensible man or woman can see the subject in any different light. If we are here by chance, if we happened to slip into this world from nothing, we shall soon slip out of this world to nothing, hence nothing will remain; consequently we have nothing to gain or lose. But the man of better judgment, of more sound reasoning, must know that every thing that was, that is, or that will be, every thing that can be in all the eternities in the vast expanse that we behold, must have had a Creator.

    These reflections lead me to contrast the world with a people like this before me, a people endowed with intelligence and a knowledge of heavenly principles. That is our profession before the world, and is our confession to God and angels, to all that have lived on the earth and that are now on it; and you will hear the world exclaim, “You poor Mormons, you Latter-day Saints that have left your homes, your houses, your friends, your families, your possessions, the place of your birth, and every thing that is near and dear to you, you say that the visions of your minds have been opened, that you have had the visions of eternity opened to your understanding, so that you do know that there is a God, that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world; so that you do know of the principles of life and salvation proffered to you; and for these you have forsaken all and gone to the mountains.”

    Of these things the whole world are witnesses against us and for us, wherever the sound of this Gospel has been; and you can hardly find a nook on the earth where the sound of it has not reached, for it has gone to the uttermost parts of the earth, and hosts are witnesses of this. Yet all acknowledge that you have something superior, that you have light and intelligence that others do not enjoy; that God has opened up the heavens to your minds, and taken away the vail from your understandings. And you say that there is a God, that you understand His character, that He has revealed Himself to you, and that you have left all and come to the mountains, and what is the cry here? Why the people need reforming, there is necessity for reformation.”
    (Brigham Young, November 2, 1856, JD 4:58)

    How shall reformation be accomplished is the employed agents of the Church preach against its most sacred principles?

  130. DKL, (#103)

    “Third, the principle of common consent makes the the membership key arbiters of apostolic incompetence. Attempts by the church structure to quiet open discussion of the issue runs counter to that principle.”

    Where has the church tried to quelch members from expressing their points of view on this issue?

    In regards to Mr. Nielsen, it wasn’t the church that fired him, nor the BYU Administration, but the dean of his school. We do not know anything else about the situation, because nothing else has been brought to light.

    In regards to the issue of SSM, can you show me any instances of the church trying to squelch Mr. Harry Reid’s voice? After all, he’s in a position of high influence, Senate Minority Leader and all.

  131. Jonathan Green says:

    Dan: It wasn’t even the dean of the college of humanities who fired him, but his department chair. Like a lot of other minutiae of academic organization, it’s a critical distinction for this discussion that is unfortunately lost on just about everybody all the time. The decision not to rehire Nielsen was made at the lowest level possible, and so quickly that I very much doubt that any higher up had any influence on it.

    DKL is concerned about Nielsen’s livelihood, about which he can rest soundly. Nielsen seems to have taught one course per semester. Whatever his teaching job was, it wasn’t his primary source of income. That gives him the freedom to say whatever he wants, but makes him much less relevant as an example of violated academic freedom.

    The courses he taught seem to have related to his expertise in business organization, not to any academic background in philosophy. He wasn’t a professor, an assistant professor, or an adjunct professor. He was an instructor filling a particular role in the philosophy department. So the high language about academic freedom and open debate and the role of philosophy doesn’t impress me much in this case (where they might if an actual academic was actually being fired for actually teaching philosophy).

    Stephen M suggested that Nielsen is using the incident as a springboard to a tenure-track job somewhere else, but that’s most likely not the case. Nielsen doesn’t have the academic qualifications to seek a tenure-track job. Even if he wanted to teach in a business department elsewhere, creating a very public controversy of any kind with your institutional leadership is not a smart career move for any part-time instructor anywhere.

    So I believe that Nielsen is legitimately exercising his right to speak his mind, and he strikes me as sincere in doing so. While BYU is getting some bad PR, however, BYU as such didn’t fire Nielsen; his department chair did. Part-time contracts come with no presumption of renewal. I was an adjunct for two years, the whole time on a semester to semester contract, and if I had created more problems for my department head than I was worth, I would have been dropped like a hot potato. Tenure-track faculty are much less vulnerable to the decisions of a single department head, but a great deal more care is also invested in their hiring. There is much less to see here than you’d think.

    If I’m wrong on the facts, please, let’s hear the truth of the matter. But there’s no point in debating tenure or academic freedom or climates of fear at BYU if they are irrelevant to the facts of the case.

  132. Yah, sure — BYU is a gulag prison camp. Walk the campus any time. You can see the starved inmates in shackles. Nonconformists are lined up for daily beatings in the public square.

    Then it has changed since I was there … ;)

  133. Kevin Barney says:

    Relevant links from the SL Tribune (an article and several letters to the editor, including one from Nielsen’s younger sister):






  134. Mark Butler says:

    Here is Richard John Neuhaus on a similar issue at Notre Dame:

    A friend who teaches at Notre Dame stopped by the other day, and the conversation inevitably turned to the gravely disappointing performance of Father John Jenkins in his first year as president. Against the claim that Notre Dame’s Catholic identity has been severely compromised, Fr. Jenkins regularly notes that 54 percent of the faculty is Catholic.

    Ah yes, my friend says, it is probably true that 50 to 54 percent of the faculty are “checkbox Catholics.” He is referring to the fact that new faculty are invited to check a box indicating their religious preference, so to speak. One box is “Catholic,” another is “Christian, non-Catholic,” and a third is “Other.” Check “Catholic” and you are forever after counted as a Catholic–regardless of whether you believe or are observant, and maybe only because you were baptized in the Catholic Church. “Catholic” is closer than the other options on offer. If you don’t go to church, it is not just any church you’re not going to; you’re not going to the Catholic Church. A very large part of the 54 percent, I am told, is composed of checkbox Catholics.

    The philosophy department at Notre Dame has about 60 faculty members. In 90 percent of the courses, friends at Notre Dame say, eminently pertinent documents such as the encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio are not read and, probably, not even referred to. In the world of academic certification, the philosophy department ranks 13th in the nation. The question persistently asked is not, “How do we create an authentically Catholic philosophy department?” but, “How do we get to a single digit?” To play in the big ten, you play by the rules of the big ten. What does Catholic have to do with it?

    Notre Dame has an endowment of around 4 billion. That is largely the work of Fr. Ted Hesburgh, who led the school for 35 years and is now nearing ninety. Fr. Ted recognized that the alumni of Notre Dame are, with exceptions, “meat and potato Catholics.” He knew Notre Dame’s constituency. The community of the Holy Cross which founded Notre Dame, is different from the Jesuits. The Jesuits, Holy Cross priests will tell you, have typically accented the production of graduates who are marked by worldly success and deracinated Catholicism. Witness Georgetown and Boston College. Now, it is said, the same dilution of Catholic thought and life is increasingly evident at Notre Dame.

    That may be excessively grim. There is much evidence of a vigorous Catholic life at Notre Dame. It is simply that it has a tenuous connection to the education that is offered, especially where one might most expect it, as in philosophy. In any event, it is not terribly reassuring that 54 percent of the faculty once upon a time checked the Catholic box.
    (Richard John Neuhaus, FIRST THINGS, 6/16/2006)

  135. Jeremiah J. says:

    Notre Dame is on very different plain when it comes to academic freedom, even though I do agree with Neuhaus that “There is much evidence of a vigorous Catholic life”. Despite the fact that Catholic character is a real, tangible issue to which every has to respond (as recent controversites have I think shown), there are really no restrictions or even guidelines which professors must follow with reference to the church. Professors are largely not practicing Catholic, but the ones who are are regularly and in public disagreeing with official church positions and adminstration positions. But a professor publicly calling a church teaching immoral, and making negative sugestions about the intellgence and integrity of church leaders in public would still create a quite a stir.

    Perhaps since we’re used to a much stricter standard of speech and behavior with respect to the general authorities, we’re not as good at distinguishing between various levels of violations of it. I think that the Nielsen piece was needlessly and excessively antagonistic, especially for a BYU prof.

  136. Nielson was teaching one class as an adjunct. Now, he can get a tenure-track job at the U. Nicely played.

  137. RE: Rosalynde’s #76

    “I’m also sad because BYU evidently STILL haven’t gotten any decent PR folks, this being only the latest in a decade-long series of PR debacles…”

    I can’t claim in special insight into this particular case, but knowing what I do about higher ed PR, I doubt that BYU’s PR crises over the years can be attributed to non-decent (indecent?) PR folks. Rather, I would guess that the issue is more with administrators (and — students, alumni, coaches, employees, and political officials) who don’t understand PR, don’t consult with PR folks before getting themselves into trouble and don’t make it easy to handle crisis communications situations after they occur.

    It’s amazing how often PR people are the last to know — even when we stress over and over again to not take action and/or talk until you speak with us first. This is not to say that PR people have any say (or should have any say) over hiring decisions, student discipline, etc. In most cases, the act itself (that sparks the PR issue) can’t be avoided; however, what we can do is help everybody be clear about what’s going on and why and ensure that it proceeds with as much decorum, civility and by the book (or if there is room for interpretation then not by the book, but in the way that leads to the best feelings among the various parties involved) as possible.

    In addition, BYU’s PR issues are certainly magnified and intensified by a press/punditry that is often openly hostile to the mission and environment of the institution itself.

    Of course, if Nielsen was truly concerned about his relationship with BYU, he would have run his letter to the editor by the PR department thus providing an opportunity for him to work things out with the administration. Not that I blame him for not doing so. He did what he felt he needed to do, and he managed to get great PR for himself by doing so.

  138. DavidH (#74),

    yeah, i guess there should be more clarification. In the Peter and Paul example, Paul was an Apostle, on the same level as Peter disagreeing with Peter on an issue and letting him know quite clearly. But Paul, being an Apostle also, like Peter, received direct revelation from God on the running of the church, so that would be more akin to Elder Holland and Elder Eyring going at it today.

    The example of Moses: Moses trusted in his father to counsel him on matters, so it isn’t some random Israelite who came to Moses and said, “your plan to feed us with mana from heaven sucks!”

    So I still stand by my point that if we do not agree with something the Prophets have spoken, it is not arguing publicly with the prophets that we need to do, but instead, go to God Himself and ask Him, as He has told us to do when we lack wisdom.

    Do we think the Brethren did not go to the Lord in prayer before coming out with their statement? Why shouldn’t we do the same before we speak publicly about what the Prophets said?

  139. Do we think the Brethren did not go to the Lord in prayer before coming out with their statement? Why shouldn’t we do the same before we speak publicly about what the Prophets said?

    I agree. At the same token, do we know if this individual prayed? It would appear that he didn’t but we don’t know until he told us whether or not he did.

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