Stop being defensive about your religion.
That's the message Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve delivered to 2,422 BYU graduates at the Marriott Center Thursday during commencement exercises for the Class of June 2009 and August 2009.
Ballard recounted the early struggles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the university, and a resulting sense that church members need to adopt a defensive posture. Things have changed, he said.
"This isn't 1830, and there aren't just six of us anymore," Elder Ballard said. "Constantly anticipating criticisms or objections can lead to an unhealthy self-consciousness and a defensive posture that doesn't resonate well with others. It is inconsistent with where we are today as a church and as a great body of followers of Jesus Christ."
He said the church's rapid growth has given the religion, now the fourth largest in the United States, a higher profile than ever, and that church members would find themselves in more discussions about their beliefs than in the past.
"You need to be honest, open, forthright, engaging, respectful of others' views and completely non-defensive about your own," Elder Ballard said. "If we want to be respected today for who we are, then we need to act confidently — secure in the knowledge of who we are and what we stand for, and not as if we have to apologize for our beliefs.
"That doesn't mean we should be arrogant or overbearing," he said.
Elder Ballard offered two suggestions to remaining non-defensive in conversations.
"Don't let irrelevant issues drown out the more important subjects," he said, mentioning polygamy as a specific example.
"This ended in the church as an official practice in 1890. It's now 2009. Why are we still talking about it?" he asked.
His second suggestion: "Emphasize that Latter-day Saints follow Jesus Christ and what Jesus Christ teaches."
"Whenever you are having a conversation about the church, you should try to make this a point. We follow Jesus Christ. We try to live as he taught," Elder Ballard said. "That's the basis of our faith and our lives. This is the strongest non-defensive position you can take."
Jesse Egbert, who graduated Thursday with a degree in linguistics and a 4.0 GPA, spoke for the graduates, telling his classmates they did not have to deal with challenges alone, that challenges could be endured with patience, and that they could serve others, even during their challenges.
"Like all of us, I have participated in small, everyday acts of service," Egbert said. "These small acts of service, however, seemed anything but small to those who needed help. One important lesson I have learned is to stop asking others whether they need help and just start helping."
Elder Cecil O. Samuelson, a member of the Quorums of the Seventy of the church and BYU president, conducted the commencement ceremonies and told the graduates in his opening remarks that their education should not end with graduation.
"A rather common fallacy accepted in society is that with graduation one has finished her or his education," Elder Samuelson said. "That is a serious misunderstanding if we are considering a truly educated person, particularly one with the most lofty goal of achieving eternal life and eventually perfection."
In addition to Thursday afternoon's exercises, nine cadets from the Army ROTC were commissioned in the morning, with two cadets from the U.S. Air Force to be commissioned as officers this morning, with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, speaking at the ceremonies.
Convocations for the various colleges, where graduates will receive their diplomas, will be held today starting at 8 a.m.
Breakdown of June 2009 and August 2009 BYU graduating class
Bachelor's degree: 2,014
Master's degree: 377
Doctor's degree: 31
Graduates by gender
Male: 1,206 (49.8%)
Female: 1,216 (50.2%)
State or country of origin
Utah: 743 (31.1%)
All other states: 1,362 (56.9%)
Foreign countries: 286 (12%)
U.S. Territory: 1 (04%)