Michael Young: Keeping Watch on International Religious Freedom
by Maurine Jensen Proctor

The Dean of the George Washington Law School never looked to have a dashing resume, but he followed what compelled him. That has led him to be one of the U.S. watchdogs monitoring religious persecution worldwide.

Michael Young, the articulate and erudite Dean of the George Washington Law School, sits casually in his corner office and smiles as he confesses, “My first semester I was reasonably sure I was going to flunk out of Harvard Law School.” Outside the GW law students are sprawled studying. Scribbled in chalk on blackboards in the hall are notes on study sessions. Their dean understands the worry they sometimes feel.

“I’d gotten through BYU basically on what I knew was a bit of a trick. I had a great short-term memory so I could memorize everything I learned and parrot it back easily. But I knew full well that didn’t involve any real study, and so when I got into law school and was asked to explain what was wrong with a case, my reaction was ‘nothing was wrong as far as I could tell.’ My expertise was in repeating the information I had received and giving it back, and when I found that law school was a different agenda it was unsettling. That occasioned some long, late nights for quite awhile.

“After I’d been doing this for two or three months of sheer terror,” he said, “I remember waking up one morning and discovering I really loved the law. I spent long hours, but it was fascinating. I had a wonderfully good time.”

The Secret to his Stature
That high-spirited, wonderfully-good-time approach to life seems to be a secret to Dean Young’s personality and stature. He makes life’s choices not based on a set of rigid goals or success secrets. He has never been particularly interested in creating a dashing resume. So why does a dashing resume follow him? He follows what interests and compels him, rather than being externally driven by what might seem impressive.. He likes ideas. He loves doing what others might consider pressure-cooker drudgery. Things capture his attention and heart and he throws himself in to study and understanding with a fervor. There is an energy to Dean Young that transforms into confidence before daunting tasks.

In law school, by day he was a student, hanging out with people who have since gone on to extraordinarily successful, high-profile careers. By night, however, he would get in his car and drive out to some of the worst neighborhoods in Boston and pick up kids for Young Men’s or Young Women’s activities. “The Church keeps you balanced and gives you perspective,” he said.

After Graduation
True to his nature, with a law degree in hand, he made a choice that fascinated him. It just happened to be clerking for Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist and then on to teach at the Stanford Law School.

“When I finished clerking,” he said, “as I reflected on what I wanted to do next, it dawned on me that I could do tax work or corporate work or litigation, but that was not what had captured my attention in law school. What captured me were the classes that talked about the relation between law and society-the way people behave, the way they order their lives, and the way they interact with each other. What effect do their attitudes and their culture have on the way the legal rules operate? It is the kind of legal sociology or anthropology that interested me, and I realized that law firms were not going to pay me to think about that, so teaching seemed attractive to me.

“I’d be a terrible advisor talking to someone who wanted to do this or that with their career,” he said because my idea was whatever you do, you do it as well as you can and then look at what seems like the next interesting, exciting, engaging step. If it leads you someplace where people ooh and ah, terrific, but if it doesn’t, that doesn’t matter, because at the end of the day you are doing what you want to do.

“When I clerked for Judge Rehnquist, I remember a speech he gave once which I thought was exactly right. It was at his daughter’s graduation from law school and he said essentially, ‘you guys are all smart, aspiring, young attorneys. I’ve been on the Supreme Court twenty plus years. There’s only nine of us. Most of us are going to be on the court a long time. If your only ambition in life is to become one of us, the chances of you being disappointed are enormous. So go out and do what you really want to do. If it doesn’t lead to something flashy, you won’t be disappointed. You will have done what you really want to do.'”

His mission to Japan introduced Dean Young to what became a lifelong interest, and he went on to study the legal system there. “Japan had a very sophisticated legal system, abandoned that system, and adopted a western legal system without changing any of its major cultural patterns, and so here you have a very interesting disjunction between society and the legal system.” This was the kind of study that intrigued him and opened doors.

During the administration of President George Bush, he served as Ambassador for Trade and Environmental Affairs, Deputy Secretary for Economic and Agricultural Affairs, and Deputy Legal Advisor to the U.S. Department of State. He was serving as the Fuyo Professor of Japanese Law and Legal Institutions at Columbia Law School when he was tapped to be the Dean of George Washington Law School.

George Washington Law School, located in the nation’s capital where law is created, has an extraordinary faculty and students, so he says he wakes up every morning and asks, how do we advance that interest the most? The physical facility is inadequate so he is involved in a building campaign. He also works to attract and keep an excellent faculty. “I spend a lot of time with faculty, learning about what they are working on and finding out what they want to do. I go to them and I say, ‘If I got you $500,000, what would you do with it?’ Then we shape a really good idea, and we go get the resources to do it. My faculty has contacts, ties and vision, and if you give them the scope to do what they really want to do, then you build bridges with people.”

That means one week the law school is bringing in the incoming president of the World Trade Organization, and the next they are sponsoring a conference on electronic commerce. “You ride the horse you are on,” Dean Young says, “and you try to capitalize on the core values of an institution. If I wanted to build the program in an area where we don’t have any faculty, I could aspire to that, think about that, strategize about that all I want , and it would be hollow. It is important to identify what the real strengths of the people you have working for you and give them scope to do what they do best.”

Why He Believes
It’s a high pressure world Dean Young is in. His weeks are long and busy. “This is probably the most demanding job I’ve had in terms of concentration and sheer hours,” he says. ” I’ll tell you one thing, it isn’t something you could do with the children home. I’ve been urged to take positions like this in the past, and I haven’t. While my kids were home, I felt by and large that I didn’t want to take a job that was going to take me away this much. You don’t necessarily take every opportunity that comes along, because some may not be compatible with other goals that you have.”

Bottom line for Dean Young is his commitment to his family and the gospel. In following what engages him the most, this is it. He says, “I was raised in a family where while I was younger, my parents weren’t engaged in the church, though I think they both fundamentally believed it. But I did spend part of my time growing up with my grandfather and grandmother in Provo, Utah. He was one of those great, old pioneer types of the church raised, in Manassas, Colorado, where he was the sheriff for a number of years.

“What was extraordinary about him was that he was that link to the past. He served three missions for the church He replaced a missionary in the South who had been lynched. He and his companion were the first two missionaries in San Diego, and he was the bishop of his local ward in Provo for 32 years. That was the time,” he quips, “when men were really men and bishops lasted forever.”

“He didn’t really talk to us a lot about what he believed, but it was so much a part of his life I could feel it. When he would say a family prayer, or one of us was sick and he needed to give a blessing, he was talking to someone. He would sit in his easy chair and tell us wonderful stories, so that was part of it. There was this sense that there was this much higher order. There was a God with whom one had a very personal relationship.

“The challenge for me growing up was to understand what he was talking about. It became a matter of praying about that, and engaging myself to understand. I didn’t grow up in primary singing the songs. I always felt like I was a member, but I didn’t go. I was in jr. high before I drifted toward the church. I was befriended by some neighborhood kids who sort of took me there which is ironic because they all spun out of the church in some rather spectacular ways-one ended up in prison. But I am indebted to them. From that one thing led to another. For me, there was always the question of trying to better understand why my grandfather felt that way and what his history meant, and what the logic was of all this and how one got a personal confirmation of it.

“That just came slowly and over time,” Dean Young says, “and I am not sure I can point a single experience that transformed my life. It was more an Alma 32, where you are encouraged to experiment on the word and plant the seed and see if it is good, and the number of cases where that comes back confirmed is extraordinary. It is for me an ongoing process. I can recite events from then, but with equal clarity and equal need cite recent events that are just as important.

Statue at George Washington University

“I remember for example I served a mission in Japan. It was a turning point. We had some fair amount of success. One never knows how to measure this. I remember fast forwarding twenty years, and my son calls me from college-we were living in New York at the time– and he had just received his mission call. He read the letter to us, and as he named the mission president, I thought, I know that name from somewhere.

“I thought about it and I said let me call you back in a few minutes, and I went back to my missionary diaries, and sure enough, there was a picture of me and a companion standing in the ocean with the waves crashing about us. I’m holding a young sister, and my companion is holding a young brother who are both about to be baptized– and this young brother whom my companion and I had taught was now my son’s mission president.

“You think about that-nothing is more important to me than my family -and I was out in the mission field, and there was no way that I could know that 25 years later because we had made that sacrifice someone we baptized was now in a position to help those I love the most. It is really extraordinary.

“You don’t know results, but you practice and you experiment and time after time, the Lord confirms that his hand is in these things. In the end, it leaves the confirmation that the gospel is true. It is clear that it is true. Experiment after experiment upon the word confirms it.

“I saw this same power in New York. I had the privilege of being the stake president there. I remember once when I was a counselor, we were trying to call a bishop for a ward and we lined up the usual suspects, and we prayed and prayed and– no answer. So we lined up the less than usual suspects, among whom was one guy who we seemed to think would be a very problematic bishop. We thought he had a lot of background that should make him a good bishop, but just knowing his personality, we were really reluctant.

“I told the stake president, ‘Look, I think he should only be made bishop if the angels are dancing on the desk.’. We prayed about him, too. No, answer. This praying and looking for the bishop goes on for 6 weeks. The bishop moved out of the ward, then the first counselor moved out of the ward, now the second counselor is running the ward, and we’re getting a little frantic. Why can’t we get an answer on this? So we start again from the top of the list, and we get to this fellow, and it is just absolutely clear that he should be bishop. We don’t know where this came from-and why didn’t we get it the first time? We had clearly prayed about it the first time.

“We called this bishop, and when he gave his first address to the ward, he talked about this life-threatening experience he had had between the time we had first prayed about it, and we prayed about it again that had made him a different person. It had changed the relationship between him and the Lord, and he turned out to be one of the strongest bishops in the stake.

“You see that, and you just know when that happens, you are on his errand. You know that he is guiding and directing the church of Jesus Christ. He is using you as a conduit. You are a telephone booth. It’s those kind of things again and again, there is just no doubt that the gospel is true, that this is his church, that the Lord is in charge.

“I’m very much a believer in the admonition to study our decisions out in our minds,” said Dean Young. “I don’t think these answers come because I’m at home sleeping. It is not so much that I’m getting flashes of inspiration at the particular moment I need it, as it is that when I am pulling things together and thinking it through, every once in awhile I get thoughts beyond my own. It happens in both a professional and personal setting.

International Religious Freedom
“I’ve been doing work in international freedom of religion for five or six years,” said Dean Young. “It started out based on some work I’d done for the government. When I went back to Columbia, one of my colleagues who was a human rights specialist but also himself quite religious knew that I’d done some human rights work, and that I was religious. He was Jewish; I was Mormon. We decided to put together a program where we’d bring in religious liberties advocates from all over the world to Columbia to have some instruction in human rights and then we’d send them out for some internships. We created this network of quite well-trained people, and when I came to George Washington, we continued to work together on some collaborative things, so I was a little bit identified with the field.

“When the United States created the Commission on International Religious Freedom in 1998, my name was sent over to the White House for a position. I said that was very nice of them, but since I had actually served in a Republican administration, it wasn’t likely to happen. Nevertheless, I had the qualifications; they thought I’d be good on the commission, they wanted me to do it. Sure enough, the White House appointed three entirely different people. As the commission was being formulated, the Republicans had appointed all of theirs people, and the Democrats had almost appointed all of theirs, and I knew I was not going to be on the commission.

“Nonetheless, I had this feeling. With all the work we do abroad and with our particular concern about religious persecution, there ought to be a Mormon on this commission. But it was clear there wasn’t going to be. It was strange. All of the White House appointments are in place; all the Republican nominees are in place; and I’m over here still having a very strong impression, and I don’t understand it exactly, because it seems like it is not possible to happen.

“Then, we were having a conference at the school, and someone from the state department came up to me and asked if I knew that Senator Armstrong had just resigned. He was one of the co-authors of this bill-he was very active, very evangelical. He had drafted the legislation; he had been the first one appointed by Trent Lott. It didn’t made any sense, and nobody knew why he had resigned.

“Nevertheless I got my resume on the right desk, and despite a push by other groups, I was appointed within a few weeks. Of all the people appointed to the commission, he was the last one who would have resigned, but he is the only who would have resigned who could have resulted in my appointment.”

So Dean Young went in as the first vice-chair of the United States International Commission on Religious Freedom, and it is a little like having the weight of the world upon his shoulders. Behind the humor and easy confidence is the responsibility of keeping watch with the other commissioners on a world where religious persecution is still horrifyingly real. The vast majority of the world’s governments have committed themselves to respect religious freedom, but in some countries there is still a vast gap between promise and practice.

Religious Persecution
The commission’s sometimes challenging job is to monitor international religious freedom and issue a report once a year designating “countries of particular concern.” These are the kinds of scenes that roll before the commissioners’ scrutiny:

Terror looms around the brightly dressed people gathered at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains where the government is using murder, slavery, and manmade famine to kill the Christians. What the government wants is diabolical. To systematically depopulate the native black Nuba people and replace them with Muslim tribes. The government uses tactics such as terror-bombing civilians to force people off their land and into “peace camps,” where they are forced to convert to Islam or starve. Today the exiled priest who has risked his life to be there has received a message intercepted by the resistance militia: The planes are on their way with bombs.

Bishop Su cannot forget the fifteen years he spent in a Chinese prison, knowing the pangs of unimaginable torture for his religious beliefs. One beating was so severe that the instrument splintered. Unrelenting, the police ripped apart a wooden door frame and used it to continue the beating until it, too disintegrated into splinters. The bishop was then hung by his wrists from a ceiling and beaten around the head. In yet another encounter, he was placed in a cell containing water at varying levels from ankle-to hip-deep, where he was left for days, unable to sleep. His case is not unique. In China, Protestants are arrested and tortured for holding prayer meetings, police paint hostile signs on walls, “Catholics are not allowed,” and priests face agony in prison for practicing their religion.

In France, legislators debate a proposed law that would severely restrict the activities of those religions designated by the government as “sects or cults.” The proposed law seeks to ban the named groups from opening missions or seeking new members near public places like hospitals, schools and retirement homes. What most worries groups like the Jehovah’s Witness that are on the list is a provision of the law that seeks to criminalize “mental manipulation,” a term so broad that even many of the country’s mainstream religious groups not targeted by the proposal have expressed grave concern about it.

While it doesn’t sound like much muscle to put behind a terrible problem, the yearly report created by the commission impacts foreign policy and the state department, allowing pressure to be put on the offending countries who are made well aware that they are violating international standards. “When we have reviewed what they are doing, we can persuade violating countries to act differently,” Dean Young said. Scrutiny-shining a spotlight into dark corners– can become a powerful deterrent to evil.

The countries that are systematically persecuting religions now know that someone is watching-and among those is a devout, high-energy Latter-day Saint who did not plan a course to bring him here, but followed the spirit that led him along.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.