Cover image via BYU Media Relations.
I got an email from a loved one this week saying “This is getting crazy” – along with a YouTube link with the title, “BYU PROFESSOR CONFIRMS GAY DATING IS FINALLY ALLOWED AT BYU.”
It was clear this person I love and respect took this video as concerning evidence that the Church was sadly caving into an insurgent liberal agenda.
And the professor cited in the video did a great job of affirming that very impression. In his eager exposition of recent adjustments at the Honor Code Office, Professor James Brau argued that this turn of events was clear confirmation of something far bigger than a realignment of university policy with the updated handbook of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Echoing national media’s triumphant narrative this last week, Professor Brau said, “Today is a massive watershed.”
Of what exactly?
Presuming to help his students cut through all the confusion of recent days, this professor announced to his large lecture class that he made a personal call to a staff member at the Honor Code Office where he asked, “Can you date and be gay at BYU?”
The answer: “The Honor Code no longer prohibits that.”
Whoah, okay. So what does that mean?
According to Professor Brau and CNN, the BYU Honor Code update heralds something potentially groundbreaking – perhaps even a softening of the Church’s views on sexuality. An article in the Salt Lake Tribune painted a picture of the Church finally relenting under the pressure of brave activists fighting for students who hadn’t felt safe on campus.
Even many active faithful members have wondered what this means. So, let’s talk about it.
First of all, there’s more than meets the eye here – as usual. For instance, my own sources confirm that the timetable of the update roll-out didn’t go according to plan, due apparently to threats of internal leaks of the handbook updates ahead of time.
Secondly, dropping a prohibition isn’t exactly endorsing or encouraging something either – and it seemed more reasonable to many observers all along that this was simply BYU trying to align its practices with a principle-based, not-commanded-in-all-things approach more ideal for cultivating spiritual growth.
BYU’s online statement read: “With the recently released general handbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church Educational System has updated the CES Honor Code to be in alignment with the doctrine and policies of the Church.”
The missionary standards have similarly been updated, by the way, with no reference anymore to some prescriptive behaviors such as “shaving” for male missionaries. So, maybe it’s somewhat predictable that a mission president told me he was asked by an Elder recently whether that means “it’s okay to not shave anymore.”
Seeking to follow principles, rather than prescriptions, can be understandably disorienting at first – with more space (yes) for people seeking confirmation in their own lives for what is truly right…however challenging that may be initially.
“Hey zone leaders – let’s all grow dreadlocks now…there’s no prohibition against it!”
Umm…except for that little principle about representing Christ?
This same kind of confusion seems to be at the heart of BYU’s honor code controversy. But rather than clarify and draw out more inspired purposes behind these changes, some professors and students seem all too eager to join national media outlets in leveraging this as thrilling new “evidence” to advance a narrative of the inevitable triumph of their favored social-political trajectory.
Indeed, according to Professor Brau – and other self-identified “LGBT allies” in our midst – these changes represent not a “higher and holier” way of guiding people – but a substantial pivot to line up the Church of Jesus Christ (even just a little bit more) with a view of identity and sexuality they consider more enlightened.
Despite repeated assurances to the contrary by President Ballard, President Oaks, and President Nelson himself, many of these members insist it’s just a matter of time when so much more will change – including, as many continue to hold out for, a future revelation affirming gay marriage as blessed by God.
If that’s what you really, sincerely believe, it’s little wonder this Honor Code adjustment might catch your attention – especially if you’ve been watching and waiting for anything like it for years. (Professor Brau acknowledged this is a change he’s been praying for over a longer period of time).
That’s admittedly where a number of our brothers and sisters are – and not just those who have stepped away. For those who can lay serious questions humbly down in a place of uncertainty and still seek to serve, I can’t help but admire their faith, especially if they can do so with an openness to their own view about how this all unfolds ultimately being wrong.
For others, of course, their hearts end up aching – or contracting – in this place of uncertainty…impatient at the slow pace at which the Church seems to be moving in the direction they are sure it needs to go. In that case, it can be hard not to want to interfere and advocate here and there for the collective shift one has envisioned will ultimately be needed.
That’s how I’ve made sense of this professor’s reaction – and that of some students who applauded his words as a thrilling new announcement. One student expressed appreciation publicly for the professor “laying down the law.”
That’s where the activism goes too far, I’m afraid. Indeed, for such a “very explosive, complex, and emotionally and spiritually charged issue like this,” as another colleague at BYU confided to me this week, it’s striking in Dr. Brau’s presentation that “there seemed to be no dialogue, no question and answers, no open discussion, or entertainment of concerns or questions or opposing views.”
A great many of the students applauded and cheered at one point in the video, I wonder about those who did not…students who were concerned (and who may have remained silent or, even worse, participated in cheering and applauding because they didn’t want to be singled out in the crowd for not being sufficiently ‘open-minded’, ‘tolerant and loving’, or ‘lacking a testimony’.)
Professor Brau had a message for those students. After hinting that this change in the Honor Code implied a newfound university openness to both dating among gay couples and physical affection, he went on to argue that those who felt any concern or hesitation about the changes were questioning the faith and those called to lead it, saying “It amazes me because what they’re saying is they don’t have a testimony of the living apostles.”
(The irony of saying this as one who essentially admitted disagreeing with core teachings of these same apostles for years seems lost on the professor).
He went on to hint that students demonstrating any disrespect to gay couples would be investigated by the honor code now. Wow. Take that, you bigoted students!
The passion and finality in Professor Brau’s monologue is reflective of the larger activist dialogue online – having taken over sizeable parts of the Mormon blogosphere + intelligentsia. In his case, he speaks as someone who wants badly for the Honor Code updates to mean what he thinks it should mean.
Whatever sadness I feel for this professor (and undoubtedly many more like him at BYU), however, I feel far more concern for young Latter-day Saint college students sitting in their classes – young adults who hardly know how to write an essay, let alone navigate the complexities of culture war sexuality.
What do these wide-eyed, open-hearted young students take away from an emotional moment with Professor Brau, or like-minded activist professors?
So the covenant path of exaltation is for everyone, but now the Church is winking at gay students to go ahead and date?
One BYU student celebrant quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune declared that everything goes as long as you don’t have sex.
And rather than encouraging students to seek personal inspiration to apply the same core principles of chastity (in a higher, holier way), notice how Professor Brau summarized this principle-based shift to his students: “They want each person to come up – whether you are gay, straight, trans, bi, cis – with a personal definition to you on what it means to be virtuous and to obey the law of chastity. They want to come up with your own personal definition of that.”
Oh dear professors – there’s enough confusion and to spare all over the internet. Cannot a BYU classroom at least be a place for sacred, crucial clarity?
Prophets have not been unclear about these matters. Just over five months ago, President Russell M. Nelson spoke to these very issues in a direct, plain way – reiterating both the truth of God’s love and the union Father continues to hold out as the ideal: “God has not changed His definition of marriage.”
Are we really to think this prophet – and the Lord who directs him – are tacitly endorsing the pursuit of romantic attachment that would lead precious sons and daughters of God farther away from this ideal?
Not a chance.
Neither should President Hinckley’s caution years ago against those who may see marriage as “fixing” anything be over-interpreted as a kind of blanket warning against marriage for those who experience same sex attraction (as has been popular to assert among the activist class).
There are all sorts of things marriage won’t “fix” (just ask my own long-suffering wife). Far from a reason to avoid marriage, any such challenges are wonderful reasons to prepare one’s heart even more (not less) for the refining fire of an exalting, covenantal relationship.
All this is to say, there’s a whole other way of making sense of these honor code adjustments that professors like Brother Brau seem little interested in broaching – let alone helping students consider. Instead, it becomes remarkably easy in our partisan environment for any nugget of evidence confirming one’s preferred socio-political narrative to be seized upon and widely promoted as part of the cause.
That’s what’s happening on the eager left. And, of course, that’s also what others on the far right (ala Denver Snuffer) are doing with this same matter – seizing upon this as evidence of the unfortunate moral decay of Church leadership.
Thus, we have fearful narratives on the right reacting against over-eager narratives on the left….both of which struggle to acknowledge their own interpretations in the matter.
Interpretations of what actually happened.
And what is that?
Not moral decay. And not social justice advancement.
Continued movement toward a higher and holier way of living as Saints – one in which we need not be commanded (or regulated) in all things. As Elder Bednar taught powerfully, there’s a thread running throughout this all – one that gathers us all closer to the Master Himself.
Let’s all take a deep breath, then. And see beyond the narratives – praying to see the actuality of things as they are.
Especially this: Precious students come to BYU to be nurtured and inspired – not beckoned down forbidden roads.
What our students need is not a revisionist gospel – but wise mentors to help them navigate these tricky issues. If you’re not willing or able to do that in good conscience, Professor Brau (and other colleagues that share your views), please have the integrity to step aside for the many who can.