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Artist Jon McNaughton pulls political, religious art from BYU Bookstore

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PROVO — As thousands of women flock to the BYU Bookstore during Women's Conference this week, one artist's work will be noticeably absent. Utah painter Jon McNaughton decided to remove all of his artwork from the bookstore after school officials decided they would no longer sell one of his most famous, and politically charged paintings, "One Nation Under God," which features Jesus Christ holding the U.S. Constitution, flanked by public figures and representative individuals.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said they reached an agreement with McNaughton in December that they would no longer buy and sell that specific piece, and that decision was enforced again recently.

"It's the bookstore's prerogative to determine what the bookstore purchases and sells," she said, adding that the bookstore focuses on religious art and adheres to a school policy of political neutrality.

McNaughton said he didn't leave the December meeting believing there was a problem with his painting, which is why he was so concerned when he recently learned it was no longer wanted.

Frustrated with what he believed were changing explanations from the university, he pulled all of his art from the BYU Bookstore.

"I figure I'll lose money," he said. "But when I thought about it, it just made me sick to think of sitting there while these people are telling me that I can't show this picture. It just didn't seem right."

Such controversy is not new to McNaughton, who has sold thousands of copies of the painting, which he calls "a lighting rod for the left" and "an icon for the far right," he said. "People either love it or they hate it."

And Jennifer Barton hated it. The adjunct art professor at BYU found the piece way too politically charged, and expressed concerns to the bookstore that it was a propaganda piece for the tea party.

Her main concern was not Christ holding the Constitution, because most Mormons believe God had some role in the American founding, she said. Instead, her biggest problem was with specific ideological details portrayed - and explained by conservative McNaughton on his website.

There's the "good" student who is holding a copy of Cleon Skousen's book, "The 5,000 Year Leap," which has been heavily promoted by Glenn Beck and somewhat "adopted" by the Tea Party, she said.

Among the "bad" people is a professor holding a copy of "The Origin of Species," by Charles Darwin.

"For a university to have that promoted as a bad thing, where half the biology department probably has you read that, just seemed really out of place for BYU," she said. "Really unprofessional."

At one point, the bookstore had signs around the exhibit stating that the views of the painting did not reflect those of the bookstore or of BYU.

Yet despite some people's concerns, it was a big seller.

"I couldn't keep it on the walls," said Val Ugolini, former supervisor of the BYU Bookstore art and frame department. "No matter how much it would cost, from $50 to $5,000, we were selling it like bread."

Ugolini, who retired in August, said he doesn't find the painting offensive, yet he doesn't share McNaughton's views regarding its content.

When he spoke with Barton about her concerns, he said he tried to "make her understand that we were there to sell things to customers," he said. "There are customers who think red, others who think blue, but we need to please everybody. If you don't like it, you don't have to buy it. But you shouldn't be offended because it's displayed."

Email: sisraelsen@desnews.com