The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine

When I heard President (then Elder) Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk, “The Second Half of the Second Century,” I cried. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with it—I cried because I thought it was a beautiful expression of Christian love and discipleship.

You may have heard that not everyone experienced the talk as I did. Many voices outside of BYU condemned the talk, and at least a few of my colleagues at BYU gave the talk a chilly reception. A new round of criticism has launched after BYU announced the talk would be part of a required course for incoming first-year students. This new course is intended to (among other things) help students understand the unique mission and purpose of BYU and to help them feel a sense of belonging at the university.

Soon after President Holland spoke in 2021, I was talking to a friend and mentioned how I felt about the talk. He was initially surprised by my response and asked if I would write down why the talk meant so much to me. I jotted down some thoughts and have not looked at them since I wrote them in September 2021. I share them here to provide an alternative perspective to the way many people are framing the talk. I’ll also respond to a few criticisms that are leveled against the talk. All text in italics is from the time the talk was written:

I re-read [“The Second Half of the Second Century”] and was moved to tears again, just as I was when I listened to it live. I believe the talk displays a deep and joyful commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, sensitivity and compassion on difficult issues, a willingness to weep with those who weep, gratitude for what BYU has become, and hope for what BYU can be. Elder Holland does not shrink from either the pain that many people experience or the majesty of God’s commands. The talk was edifying in the best sense – combining whole-souled devotion to the gospel with literary talent and cheerful encouragement, all bathed in the light of God’s love and law. One can imagine Elder Holland singing with the heavenly choirs above because he speaks the idiom of joyful discipleship. 

In addition to the inherent beauty and devotion of his words, I was moved by Elder Holland’s adamant and reverent commitment to the mission of BYU and the Church. His willingness to have BYU forego professional memberships and academic respectability highlighted the true mission of the University. I was touched by the fact that I get to be part of this great work, and that God led me to the place I am now. It is inspiring to be part of “so great a cause” and to be a small part of God’s work and glory in this time of the world. Elder Holland’s talk helped me feel the weight of my responsibility, but the weight is made light by the enthusiasm and faith he conveyed. This combination of seeming opposites—joyful and serious, heavy and light, reverent and passionate—stated so clearly about an institution and ideals I love so much is what made Elder Holland’s talk moving to me.

Given what some people are saying, it’s hard to believe we listened to the same talk.

The two most prominent criticisms of President Holland’s talk seem to be that he should not have reinforced the Church of Jesus Christ’s doctrine of marriage and the family (because this makes many students, especially those who identify as LGBT+, feel unwelcome) and that he should not have called for “musket fire” in defense of the Church’s teachings.

As for the first criticism, it seems to presuppose what my former teacher Robert George calls “identitarianism”: the view one’s sexual desires and gender identity constitute a crucially important part of the person and that living a happy and fulfilled life means acting in accordance with those desires and experienceswhatever they happen to be (at least as long as the principle of consent is respected). It doesn’t matter who you are attracted to or how you understand and live out your genderlove is love, and everyone should be free to be their true self, to take two slogans from the movement. Crucially, the “self” that is presupposed when people say “be your true self” is one that is unencumbered by unchosen demands or roles. This self is (and should be) free from societal expectations of gender or sex would limit or constrain its true expression.

Once one accepts this view, the Church’s positions on family, marriage, and sexuality become highly suspect, even incomprehensible. As George notes, “The step from [identitarianism] to the rejection of traditional norms against homosexual acts and the affirmation of same-sex sexual partnerships, even their status as marriages, is extremely short. It becomes a simple matter of kindness … compassion … decency … equality … treating like cases alike. After all, only a bigot (or someone who is abjectly ignorant or horribly cruel) could deny people their natural fulfillment.”

Which, of course, are precisely the things that people did say and are saying about President Holland.

Professional image of Elder Holland as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jeffrey R. Holland Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

However, the identitarian view of human identity and fulfillment is not self-evident. The rejection of the law of chastity and our embodied nature as male and female persons is, at best, a highly controversial view. In contrast, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, which President Holland signed in 1995 as a new apostle, teaches that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” In this view, our identity is not as open-ended and undefined as the identitarian alternative would have it. Instead, God has a plan for our growth and development. We are made for something: loving and committed relationships that mirror the creative and loving union of our heavenly parents. As President Holland taught on another occasion, “Of all the titles [God] has chosen for Himself, Father is the one he declares, and Creation is his watchword—especially human creation, creation in his image.”

Of course, the differences between these two approaches to human identitywho we really areare much deeper and nuanced than I can articulate here, but the disagreement is not between people who love and support people who identify as LGBTQ+ and those who hate them. One shouldn’t have to accept highly controversial metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions in order to love another person. Everything that we know about President Hollandin the talk, in other speeches, and in his broader ministrysuggests that he has extended love, compassion, and understanding to people who identify as LGBT+ throughout his ministry.

The other criticism of President Holland’s talk is that he used a metaphor about “musket fire” and that this either encourages or provides cover for people to express hostility or violence towards people who identify as LGBT+. Here, I think we should extend to President Holland the same courtesy and expectation that we would all want applied to ourselves: that our words be taken in context, and not twisted in a way that goes against our obvious intended meaning.

Applying this golden rule of interpretation, it becomes clear that President Holland was not calling for violence against anyone. He was calling on BYU facultythe context is essentialto give more public support for the Church’s positions, which were (and are) under intellectual attack. In fact, this is at least the fourth time that an apostle has made a call like this to the BYU administrators or faculty. As President Holland points out in his talk, the original reference comes from a talk Elder Neal A. Maxwell gave to BYU administrators in 2004. Here is the relevant section quoted by President Holland:

In a way [Church of Jesus Christ] scholars at BYU and elsewhere are a little bit like the builders of the temple in Nauvoo, who worked with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. Today, scholars building the temple of learning must also pause on occasion to defend the kingdom. I personally think this is one of the reasons the Lord established and maintains this university. The dual role of builder and defender is unique and ongoing. I am grateful we have scholars today who can handle, as it were, both trowels and muskets.

President Dallin H. Oaks repeated this call to members of the BYU community in 2014 and 2017, and President Holland again relayed the call in his 2021 talk.

Perhaps these comments are open to some latitude of interpretation, but reading them as a call to violence simply ignores what President Holland (and Elder Maxwell and President Oaks) said. Indeed, in the midst of his discussion about defending the faith, President Holland says this:

But it will assist all of us—it will assist ­everyone—trying to provide help in this ­matter if things can be kept in some proportion and balance in the process. For example, we have to be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy or that orthodoxy and loyalty to principle not be interpreted as unkindness or disloyalty to people. As near as I can tell, Christ never once withheld His love from anyone, but He also never once said to anyone, ‘Because I love you, you are exempt from keeping my commandments.’ We are tasked with trying to strike that same sensitive, demanding balance in our lives.”

These are not the words of a man who wants to see hostility or violence. These are the words of a leader who is skillfully trying to navigate a difficult issue, holding the line of God’s commandments but also extending compassion and understanding to people who don’t see things as he does. Reading into his comments a call to violence or hostility simply misrepresents his meaning. That is not what he said, and that is not what he meant.

Controversies related to sex, gender, and identity are some of the most complex and polarizing of our time. Latter-day Saints will continue to wrestle with these issues for the foreseeable future. I pray that we can all navigate these controversies with the grace, compassion, wisdom, love, and discipleship that President Holland demonstrated in his talk.