Mother Night and Anti-Mormonism

Today, I picked up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Mother Night from the Book Exchange at UVU. I did it because I had a ways to walk and I didn’t like the idea of just idly thinking about whatever while I did it. Vonnegut seemed like a good way to spend time whilst walking and the novel is fairly slim. I remember hearing about it vaguely, “something about a Nazi propagandist,” but that’s all. My only other familiarity with Vonnegut is from skimming Slaughterhouse Five as a teenager, looking at the pictures.

Inside the front cover, I found the following dedication, written in blue ball-point:

This book is a must for anyone who has
a) been subjected to the BYU experience
b) been subjected to the church
c) not read the best of Vonnegut’s work.
May you distill from this many quotes to hurl at our opponents – I’ve marked some of the best for you.
Luff[?] & Alohas,

The dedication is dated 12/25/75, a Christmas present from, apparently, one disaffected Hawaiian to another.

Some of the marked sections of the book are two long to quote verbatim, but I thought it would interest you to note them generally. After a passage noting that Purgatory is worse than Hell, the marker added “So there!”

The following passage is marked, followed by a written “Amen!”

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile. (pg. 120)

There are three more marked passages, one describing the intermittent rationality of crazy people and totalitarians by comparing it to mechanical clocks that run perfectly for a time and then skip haphazardly to another time, at which they once again run perfectly for some unspecified random period. Another is a letter from the protagonist of the book, a Nazi propagandist/secret American agent, to a maker of educational toys, explaining that he believes the best education for children is to cause them to watch humanity at its worst so as to give them some idea of what to expect in their life.

The last references the protagonist’s upcoming trial for war crimes in Israel, crimes committed while he was an American secret agent:

If there must be a trial of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., by the forces of self-righteous nationalism, let it be one hell of a contest! (p. 192)

These are nearly the last words in the book.

One wonders why this particular book caught our Polynesian friend’s eye as something that explains the “BYU experience” and the “Church” roughly 30 years ago. Was it the generally sympathetic view of the elderly fascists and nazis with whom Campbell becomes acquainted in America, who seem like the nicest people ever devoted to the eradication of the Jews? Was it the themes of hypocrisy, the creation of a little piece of good guy in one’s soul that allows one to commit atrocities without guilt? Was it the false intellectuals and false loves (who are also true intellectuals and true loves) that lead, indirectly, to Campbell’s capture and demise? Was it that a paragon of American patriotism leaves the story sloppy drunk and with an arm broken by fire tongs, while a lying spymaster and a genteel bigot turn out to be the only people Campbell can trust to act with his well being in mind? The mind boggles.

I have to say that my experiences at BYU were all benign. No one ever accused me of apostasy, mean-spiritedness, homosexuality, or any other presumably damnable offense. In teaching and learning at BYU, I was always treated with dignity. However, some people have other experiences. A friend just told me how a relative, who works at BYU, was told that publishing his life’s work, devoted to Mormon theology, would result in his dismissal from the school. Another friend told me of teaching his students to consider the ethics of Nephi’s killing Laban and that on discussing the lesson with a colleague at BYU, the colleague said, “That would be a great lesson, but we could never do it at BYU.”

I don’t know what to say in the face of this. At best, I shrug and think that is too bad. I don’t think that this is an indictment of BYU or of its academic freedom policies; it’s just too bad to see good people censor themselves out of fear of losing their jobs or their standing.

I don’t dare guess what about the BYU experience made Jal come to hate it so or what led him to find solace and inspiration in Mother Night. Certainly, there is little in there (even in the marked quotes) that could not be thrown back in the face of the angry, young Ex-Mo. Vonnegut, who was, I believe, an atheist, doesn’t strike me as an angry, young man so much as a tired, old one, even in 1961. He’s not as interested in the righteousness of his own cause as he is in the humanity of his opponents. He offers three morals for this story:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be…
When you’re dead, you’re dead…
[and] Make love when you can. It’s good for you (pp. v, vii)

I suppose those ought to be the moral for this post, too.


  1. I didn’t attend the “Y”, but my wife did. It was more miserable for her than for me, and my experience with it was bad. I have to remind myself that BYU is not the Gospel, and the Gospel is not BYU. BYU is simply an example of what stupid people can come up with when left to their own devices, and when they think they have Official Backing for their stupid.

    That being said, it’s easy to see how bad experiences at BYU would sour a person towards the Gospel in general. My wife and I had to remind ourselves that when people are doing good things and reflecting the light of Christ, they are inspired. When they are stupid, arrogant, mean, cruel, and sadistic, they are acting on their own. There’s a lot of good there, and many good people have been through BYU.

    It would also do the anti-Mormons a lot of good if they realized that the Church only has as much power as we choose to give it. I can do what they say, and if I don’t like it, I can weigh the consequences and leave if I want to. The Church itself doesn’t have any authority beyond kicking me out.

  2. certainly it can’t be argued that many mormons let the church get in the way of their beliefs.

  3. I love marginalia, particularly in Utah. When I checked out a copy of Brodie’s biography, there was a thank you note to a Brother Smith (or some other name) thanking him for the wonderfully inspirational portrayal of Joseph Smith in the ward play. It was in an envelope slipped into a page somewhere. I loved the juxtaposition. the book itself has various marginal notes from pro and con people trying to have a (fairly dimwitted for both) conversation with Brodie.

    I know very little about BYU and try to avoid commenting too much on it. Some people I love have had a wonderful time there. Others have not.

  4. Mother Night was the last Vonnegutt book I read, about three or four months ago, so it’s still fairly fresh. the main take-away message I got out of it was how reasonable people get actively engaged in destructive causes, but not in the same way that the Nazi/German story is normally told. In other words, the only person who could validate Campbell’s mandate to be a Nazi was untraceable, so he had no defense. In a sense, that *is* our experience in this world–whatever we do, we do to and amongst and in spite of reasonable humans, but especially *humans*, and we cannot believe in anything except the mandate we have been given, whatever that is. Mother Night is a wonderful book, and I hope that it will have the opposite effect on many who read it–as you put it, to help them realize the humanity of their opponents.

  5. I didn’t attend the “Y”, but my wife did. It was more miserable for her than for me, and my experience with it was bad.

    Huh? If you didn’t attend BYU what experience with it are you talking about?

  6. Matt W.'s wife, says:

    Vonnegut was my favorite author when I was a 18-20 year old Athiest. When I was 21 I joined the Church. Just before I turned 22, I picked up Timequake, Vonnegut’s last book. In it he recommends being a member of a Church Group. It was very impactful on me. Oh, and while Vonnegut was definitely a skeptic, he felt the beatitudes informed most of his humanist tenants and called himself a unitarian universalist on occasion.

    Personally, Vonnegut is too vulgar of an author for me to recommend to anyone, however, I got a lot out of reading his books. Maybe because we are both from Indiana.

  7. Dang it, That was me, not my wife.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    “The Church itself doesn’t have any authority beyond kicking me out.”

    That, and damning you. But yes.

  9. I attended BYU 1969-71 and 1975-81. The discussiona about experiencing BYU haven’t changed since then, they just seem to scroll the dates to have the same relative distance in the past for the reference point: we marvelled at (what we supposed had been) the unenlightened views of the campus’s dwellers some 30 years earlier.
    It is an uncommon environment, especially for a university, in that it is based upon truth being known and taught, not sought and questioned. I’ve noticed two common responses to this: acquiescing to the truths taught without the searching/pondering/struggling that deepens their affect on the individual or working so hard to pay one’s intellectual dues in searching/pondering/struggling that the affect of fully accepting the truths and moving forward doesn’t occur.
    Fortunately, travellers on each of these paths usually are granted time to realize the incompleteness of not pursuing the struggle and then accepting, and committing to, the reward.

  10. Ugly Mahana says:

    Perhaps there was a time when folks thought BYU was perfect for everyone. I’m glad that’s no longer true. I’m also glad that I attended BYU. I had a wonderful time.

  11. When I was a teenager I was what can only be described as a Vonnegut groupie. We drew Tralfamadorians on our tee shirts (and indeed made some ‘real’ ones out of toilet plungers and surgical gloves with eyes painted on the palm), and spent long hours talking about his novels and using his words and imagery in our private jokes. We snuck into the Drive-in in Moab to watch Slaughterhouse-Five too young to to get in, but too curious not to see our hero’s protagonists in on the big screen. We were very elitist and thought ourselves quite sophisticated and world-wise for having read Welcome to the Monkey House which we thought very wicked and eye-opening and which maybe the Freudian source of my fascination with hominid evolution.

  12. Thanks John, this was interesting. I think the blessing of very large universities is that you can make what you want of it. (And I do understand that there are drawbacks as well.) Yes, I had some weird experiences in a couple campus wards, but my academic experience (as a Russian major) was wonderful and most of my memories of BYU are of the excellent faculty and what an impact they had on me. I’ve attended two other large universities since BYU and feel the same way. They were all big enough that I could find my comfortable little niche and prosper.

  13. BYU is simply an example of what stupid people can come up with when left to their own devices, and when they think they have Official Backing for their stupid.

    I dunno. They’ve created one of the finest undergraduate computer science/foreign language/engineering/accounting/etc./etc. programs in the country, and their graduates are universally respected for their skills and qualities.

    Just because you didn’t like the fish doesn’t mean the restaurant is bad.

  14. I’m always sad to hear of someone whose experience at BYU was bad, though I am sure that, as Karen H (#12) says, it is one of the inevitable products of having a large university. I’m also always surprised to hear the stories. It isn’t that I doubt their truthfulness, but that I’ve not had those experiences, not when I was a student long ago, not in the 34 years I’ve been teaching here. There must be parts of the university I don’t ever run into.

    As for BYU being a place where “truth is known and taught, not sought and questioned” (#9)–doesn’t sound like the attitude of the professors I know in the humanities, social sciences, or physical sciences. In religious ed, sure. But I hardly think that religious ed is the only educational experience students have nor is it the defining one.

    It isn’t difficult for a student to find majors and classes in which truth is sought and questioned. In fact, I think it would be difficult not to find at least a few.

  15. BYU has professors and students of all kinds:

    I took three church history classes: 1820-1844, 1844-1900, and 1900-present. The first was rather boring, a recitation of facts. The last drove me absolutely crazy because the teacher had no interest in discussion, probing, or engaging the subject in anything more than a superficial way. But the professor of the middle class helped us engage our subjects, including the tricky ones (polygamy, MMM, etc.), in fascinating ways. When we talked about polygamy, for instance, he brought in a journal entry from a polygamous wife and we discussed how that part of LDS life must have been–positive, negative, and otherwise. I loved that class.

    Similarly, I found that most of my professors, if anything, helped me learn to question, probe, and engage my subject. For what its worth, and while I know BYU is not perfect, I kind of like the combination BYU offers: a bedrock of truth with room left to explore. I feel that approaching “what is truth” without some grounding in something would leave me floundering, whereas approaching that same question with a couple of fundamental truths (ie: God is my Father, He loves me, and He wants me to love Him and His other children) provides me an anchor with ample room to explore and figure out how all the other myriad pieces of the puzzle fit together.

  16. I’ll second Tyler – some BYU classes are incredible, some are boring and shallow. I have a hard time with certain aspects of Mormon culture so Provo’s not quite my favorite place, but as far as BYU the university goes I haven’t had any problems with it. I know there have been some problems with academic freedom, and I’ve heard rumors of a female professor purge in the early 1990s, but as a student I don’t think I could find much to complain about that I wouldn’t find at another large university.

  17. I had a BYU Microbiology professor draw a microbe on the board, then comment on how it looked like one on Vonnegut’s drawings of an anus.

  18. know there have been some problems with academic freedom

    I don’t know of any university anywhere that has full and complete academic freedom.

    Want to be a white Christian father of 5 Prop-8 supporter and get a job teaching Elizabethan literature at Berkeley?

    Every institution has its biases. Just know them going in, and if you can’t live with them, don’t work there.

    (Disclosure: I have a family member on the BYU faculty, other relatives on staff, I’ve casually talked with BYU about employment, and I have had an extended family member run into hiring issues at BYU and not get hired. BYU is no worse and no better than other state and private schools.)

  19. (finishing my thought from 18)

    BYU is no worse and no better than other state and private schools … when it comes to academic freedom.

  20. Queuno,

    I totally agree with you on BYU. I think of my exp at Illinois everytime somebody bags on academic freedom or oppressive culture at BYU. Universities simply are as far as I can tell on the top 10 list of first amendment oppressive places in America.

    Probably in first place actually.

  21. I haven’t decided if BYU was a good or bad experience for me yet. Like most things, it was what it was. I will probably post on this for my 15th anniversary of graduating this April.

    But I love Mother Courage. That sense of being a nation of two early in the novel rings around in my head all the time.

  22. Yeah, its a good bit.

    Contrary to popular opinion, I am not railing against BYU here. It is what it is. Heck, I might even work there some day. I don’t find it particularly oppressive.

    What I am interested in is why this person found it so horrible and why they found the answers to that in Mother Night. Like I said, it doesn’t really have much good to say about folks who rail against society.

  23. Most people find it “horrible” because it doesn’t match their expectations of what the Church is or what a Church-owned university should be, or what a university should be, or they were already struggling with a testimony and thought BYU would “magically” fix it, or didn’t like their singles wards, etc.

    In short, people don’t like BYU for the same reasons they don’t like missions. Or singles wards. Or married wards. Or gospel doctrine.

    It’s an expectation mismatch issue.

    Hey, it took me 2-3 years to start to appreciate BYU when I was there, and realize that once I got past the 1000-student classes, there were real people teaching there.

  24. Steve Evans says:

    You won’t catch me talking bad about BYU. I owe BYU a great deal for providing me with a good education at a great price. I also had a tremendous time as an undergrad, just enjoying almost my entire time there. No complaints.

  25. #8 – steve –

    What power does the Church have to damn?

  26. I second Steve. There were definitely things I would have changed about my experience, but these were related to Provo and the ecclesiastical organizations and not the educational experience itself, if I were the King. I’ve only benefitted from attending BYU. (Well, OK, there are all of the people who assume that I’m a BYU football fan just because I’m an alumni – that’s anegative).

    The level of enlightened discourse in the Bloggernacle has nothing on the some of the departments in the College of Humanities, where we discussed very difficult and controversial topics all the time. (In fact, it was a running joke that it was a good thing certain administration people couldn’t speak the language…) Some of the professors in the Talmage Building were very open and willing to discuss difficult intersections between science and faith and public policy, and willing to be critical of all sides if they thought it necessary.

    (Every couple of weeks, I see some discussion on the Bloggernacle that I remember having been discussed at BYU, 15 years ago…)

  27. BYU provided me with a quality education at bargain price. Part of the reason my student loan debt is manageable is solely due to them.

    I also met my wife there.

    Everything else is trivial fluff as far as I’m concerned.

  28. I attended and graduated from BYU (1971-72, 74-78), then later taught there for two years (1985-87; computer science, in case anyone is wondering). Personally, I had a great time, both as a student and as a teacher. My own observations echo much of what has been said above; here’s my own summary, based on my BYU experience as well as doing graduate work at a state university (U of Houston/Clear Lake) and working for a university-funded research institute (the Lunar & Planetary Institute, at that time right next door to NASA/JSC in Clear Lake).

    First, universities tend to be very strange institutions in general. I first heard the classic quote — “Why are politics in academia so vicious? Because the stakes are so small.” — nearly 30 years ago, while working at LPI and watching an internationally-known space scientist get very angry because of the (insufficient) size of his post-LPI-remodeling desk. Fiefdoms, vendettas, and kingdom-building are common throughout academia; indeed, I suspect BYU may suffer less from this that most other universities.

    Second, “academic freedom” mostly means free to espouse the concepts and ideas popular with those in power within that university. BYU is a rare instance of a university where those concepts and ideas tend to be conservative and religious, while at most universities, the mandated ideas are liberal and irreligious. You will find just as many — and probably more — examples at other universities of professors being threaten with loss of tenure and/or job, as well as students being sanctioned, for espousing “controversial” conservative/religious ideas as you do at BYU for those espousing “controversial” liberal/irreligious ideas.

    Third — and this is truly a rare phenomenon, probably limited to the three BYU campuses and the various conservative Christian universities — BYU is a religious “hothouse”. Far too many administrators and officials at BYU have mistakenly (IMHO) taken Brigham’s injunction to Maeser to always teach with the Spirit of God to mean that they should use their personal religious convictions, opinions and inspiration (as they claim) to substitute for (rather than supplement) professional management and administration principles and practices.

    Fourth — and I think this is relatively rare among universities — there are so many people would would like to work at BYU at all levels (staff, administration, faculty) that it tends to provide a distorting effect on management practices. I have personally known of cases where a legitimate complaint was raised, and the complainer was told, in so many words, “If you don’t like it, leave; we have plenty of people who will take your job just as it is.” The same applies to students, and even more so, since the Church can legitimately point out to its substantial underwriting of tuition.

    Frankly, I think BYU is one of the best undergraduate educational institutions in the world, particularly since (unlike most “name” universities) it has always had a much greater focus on actual undergraduate teaching by professors rather than having the professors focus on research and foist actual class teaching off on grad assistants. But it is far from perfect, and the fact that it is a thoroughly LDS institution (owned and operated) means that it’s definitely not for everyone, not even all Latter-day Saints. ..bruce..

  29. Yeah, as much fun as it is poke fun at BYU (something I do fairly often), I actually really loved attending school there. A great education, I thought. Quite open, liberal-minded professors.

    Sometimes I wonder how much BYU has changed over time. Are the typical complaints just from a different era, a BYU that doesn’t really exist anymore?

  30. I too have fond memories of my time at BYU. I also have a continuing appreciation of the work of their police department.

  31. Anyone who wants to follow the current state of “freedom” on an academic campus, go check out FIRE. Sometimes I think they’re just focusing on extreme cases, but then logic tells me it’s really that bad out there…

  32. I too have fond memories of my time at BYU. I also have a continuing appreciation of the work of their police department.

    Any chance we’ll get another round of your commentary on that work anytime soon?

  33. I had a lovely time at BYU. I count it as a wonderful period in my life. I learned a lot and was exposed to interesting ideas (loved my Women’s studies classes). I was also lucky to have great roommates. So I have nothing bad to relate about my experience. Also, my husband benefitted from an excellent education at BYU which has led us to some great places. The undergraduate mentoring program is outstanding.
    I don’t think its a bad thing to have conservative professors. Most universities are filled to the brim with liberal professors.

  34. I don’t think its a bad thing to have conservative professors. Most universities are filled to the brim with liberal professors.

    The dirty little secret is that BYU is teeming with liberal professors. You just won’t find them in the Religion departments, but so what?

  35. Gregory Taggart says:

    I have it on excellent authority that 80% of the undergraduates in the Chemistry Department at BYU publish in academic journals in their field before they graduate. I know for a fact that undergrads in Life Sciences publish all the time, present at conferences, and are often mistaken for graduate students. All this happens because of the mix of excellent professors and great students.

    Are there bad eggs and unfortunate events at the BYU? Are there in any community of 50,000 people?

    Criticizing BYU is of the same stripe as calling Utah drivers the worst. People need to get out more.

    By the way, the worst drivers ever drove along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast one day during the second week in July 1975. As far as the worst university, I’m confident there’s a long line of candidates in front of the Bro. Maeser’s little Academy.

  36. #35, a question out of the blue. Not the Greg Taggart who grew up in Vegas?
    Sorry for the quick hijack but knew a Greg Taggart and Taggart family in Vegas….

    Sam K.

  37. #25 – The most direct form of damnation is what a person does to himself, through sin coupled with a lack of repentence, or worse, the desire to outright rebel against God. This can happen no matter what might happen within the Church, what a particular leader might or might not do, or even what’s reflected on the person’s membership records.

    Having said that: At the very minimum, the Church can determine who are its members and whether someone is in good standing or not (i.e., through the process of disciplinary action, resulting in church probation, loss of temple recommend, disfellowshipped status, and/or even excommunication. To the extent this an additional manifestation that the (former) member has been denied eternal blessings, I’d say it’s also a form of damnation. Moreover, if someone is denied the gift of the Holy Ghost, which is a result that follows excommunication, that’s very clearly damnation.

  38. Sorry, I’ve run into too many “BYU Mormons” who believe that if you attended another university, root for another football team, desired to have your secular and spiritual education separated, or have concerns over academic freedom at BYU that you are not as good a Mormon as they to have much positive to think or say about BYU.

    And to counter… I obtained an excellent undergrad education at Weber State University, as did my brother, sister in law, husband and sister. The Institute there is a wonderful place of learning and growth. I met my husband at Weber, and I credit Weber with my being able to graduate with no student loans and my husband being able to graduate with a low amount of loans (Well the Army helped as well.) I have very fond memories of my times at Weber.

%d bloggers like this: