Support Denmark, Defend Freedom

Thursday, June 15, 2006

52 Wife Pick-up

Some of you may be following the story of Jeffrey Nielsen, adjunct professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University, who was informed by BYU officials this week that he would not be asked back next year because of a June 4 "anti-antigay marriage" op-ed he wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune.

In his column, Nielsen took issue with a statement from Church of Latter-day Saints leaders telling Mormons to support the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages and urging them to let their Senators know how they felt.

Nielsen wrote:
As a member [of the Mormon church], I sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as LDS general authorities; however, I reject the premise that they are thereby immune from thoughtful questioning or benevolent criticism. A perfect God does not require blind obedience, nor does He need unthinking loyalty. Freedom of conscience is a divine blessing, and our privilege to express it is a moral imperative.

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.
Nielsen points out the wealth of scientific research pointing towards the fact that sexual orientation is "biologically based," and says that in his opinion a just God would not create the reality of same-sex attraction only to condemn those who are wired that way to a life of guilt and second-class citizenship. He also takes issue with what he calls an "appeal to religious authority to create law":
Our Founding Fathers were inspired by theirstudy of history to separate constitutional authority from religious belief, recognizing as they did the potential for tyranny in unchecked religious influence. In our pluralistic democracy, attempting to restrict an individual's rights and privileges based upon a religious claim is a dangerous rejection of our Founding Fathers' wise insight, and it should be unacceptable to all Americans.
Finally, Nielsen cautioned the LDS church regarding being actively involved with this issue:
As for the statement by church leaders that God has ordained marriage to be a union between a man and a woman, I find it quite troubling. It sidesteps the role of polygamy in past and future church teachings. It seems to me that if church leaders at one point in time, not very long ago, told members that the union of one man with several women was important for eternal salvation, but now leads them to believe that God only recognizes the union of one man to one woman, then some explanation is required. (I am not endorsing polygamy.)

God is not the author of incoherence or injustice, but we humans often are. We in the LDS Church must be more honest about our history, including the past and future practice of polygamy in our official doctrine. This will be difficult, for it will reveal that we have been less than truthful in our public relations, and it will show our inconsistency with current statements opposing gay marriage.
Needless to say, none of this made church leaders very happy, and since BYU is an LDS-operated institution, Nielsen was told that his services would no longer be required. The Tribune reported Tuesday that in a letter dated June 8, BYU Philosophy Department Chair Daniel Graham told Nielsen:
"In accordance with the order of the church, we do not consider it our responsibility to correct, contradict or dismiss official pronouncements of the church. Since you have chosen to contradict and oppose the church in an area of great concern to church leaders, and to do so in a public forum, we will not rehire you after the current term is over."
So who's right and who's wrong?

Andrew Sullivan waxes sarcastic:
Once you let philosophers think and speak freely, who knows where it will lead? A university cannot have that kind of thing going on, can it?
I agree with Sullivan, with one very big caveat: BYU is not an ordinary university. It is "founded, supported, and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," and as such has every right to let go an untenured professor who directly challenges the leadership of that church.

BYU's mission statement says in part that the university "must provide an environment enlightened by living prophets and sustained by those moral virtues which characterize the life and teachings of the Son of God." To that end:
All students at BYU should be taught the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any education is inadequate which does not emphasize that His is the only name given under heaven whereby mankind can be saved. Certainly all relationships within the BYU community should reflect devout love of God and a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbor.

Because the gospel encourages the pursuit of all truth, students at BYU should receive a broad university education. The arts, letters, and sciences provide the core of such an education, which will help students think clearly, communicate effectively, understand important ideas in their own cultural tradition as well as that of others, and establish clear standards of intellectual integrity.
Now, to me, letting go a philosophy professor for publicly disagreeing with church leaders is the spiritual antithesis of providing students with a "broad university education" and doesn't do much for establishing a clear standard of "intellectual integrity." But if your church teaching is that homosexuality and/or gay marriage is immoral, is a sin, is an evil right up there with putting Jews in ovens or dragging Africans to your continent for slave labor, then I suppose you'd feel otherwise. After all, would anyone be upset if BYU fired a professor for publicly expressing the belief that the slave trade was moral?

There are two issues here: first, does BYU have the right to deny employment to someone because his beliefs run counter to current LDS teachings? Here the answer clearly is "Of course."

The second issue is murkier: Should BYU deny employment to someone because his beliefs run counter to current LDS teachings? I would argue that the answer here is a qualified "Maybe." (I'm nothing if not bold.) In Nielsen's particular case, it seems counterintuitive to let go a philosophy professor for disagreeing with religious doctrine if you're truly seeking to provide your students with a broad education and teach them the meaning of intellectual integrity. Nielsen considers himself a committed member of the LDS church, so it's not as though he's trying to bring down the Mormon church, in which case it would be understandable for BYU to not keep him on its payroll. And for him to pretend to go along with a teaching he obviously finds abhorrent wouldn't exactly meet industry standards for intellectual integrity. (Not to mention, how do you hire someone who wrote a book entitled "The Myth of Leadership: Creating Leaderless Organizations," and not expect him to take on established authority? Just askin'....)

It seems to me that ultimately BYU's administration and LDS church leaders had to make a decision as to what was more important to them: LDS policy on homosexuality and gay marriage, or the freedom of BYU professors to publicly take positions against the church. They made the choice to shelter students from opinions that run counter to church teachings, perhaps overlooking the idea that hearing dissenting views and learning how to respond to them is often the best way to learn how to defend your own beliefs.

But the bottom line is that it was Brigham and Miriam, Mary Ann, Lucy, Harriet, Lucy Augusta, Clarissa, Clarissa, Louisa, Zina, Emily, Eliza, Elizabeth, Clarissa, Rebecca, Diana, Maria, Susannah, Olive, Mary, Mary Harvey, Margrette, Rhoda, Emmeline, Mary, Margaret, Mary Ann, Olive, Emily, Ellen, Abigail, Mary, Mary, Amy, Julia, Abigail, Naamah, Nancy, Eliza, Jane, Mary, Lucy, Sarah, Eliza, Mary, Catherine, Harriet, Harriet Amelia, Mary, Ann Eliza, Elizabeth, Lydia and Hannah.

Not Brigham and Steve.

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home