Two of the world’s oldest and most distinguished universities, Oxford and Cambridge, maintain colleges dating back centuries bearing names like Corpus Christi, Christ Church, Trinity and Jesus.
On this side of the pond, Harvard began as a clerical seminary. The same is true of Yale, which started (unironically) as a conservative alternative to Harvard.
Fast forward to last week and Harvard hired its first — and forgive the oxymoron — atheist chaplain. If there’s any lesson from higher education in the past century it’s that religious-based colleges can become unmoored from their faith-based traditions in only a few generations.
Of course, secular institutions of higher learning contribute immense good to the world. But, in their journeys toward secularization and neutrality on matters of belief, they’ve shed much of the moral ballast that once came with pairing academic discipline and discipleship.
That’s why Brigham Young University’s mission — and its religious educational experiment — is not something to be ashamed of, but rather something to embrace and cherish. This past week I took time to watch, to study and to sit with the recent talk at BYU by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Each time I revisited the talk what struck me was how much Elder Holland loves Brigham Young University and its students, faculty and staff. When it comes to unmitigated paternal affection toward an alma mater, you’d be hard pressed to find his equal. It’s also abundantly clear from his talk that he wants nothing more than to see BYU fulfill its lofty, divinely inspired mission of providing students with an education that is “spiritually strengthening, intellectually enlarging and character building, leading to lifelong learning and service.”
But to those shocked by hearing Elder Holland reason with university leaders and faculty that the school’s commencement ceremonies should reflect a certain level of spiritual decorum — Elder Holland made a passing reference to a student coming out during a recent college commencement — it would be worth remembering that commencement ceremonies at BYU start and end with prayers, and, at their best, are spiritually enriching proceedings.
Now, let me be clear, affording LGBTQ people both the space and comfort to disclose their sexual identity on their own terms and in an environment of care is a standard that all of us should rightly seek to support. But as with the regulation of any speech under our First Amendment, “the time, place and manner” makes a difference.
Commencements at BYU should remain ceremonies befitting the campus’ spiritual environment. After all, for Latter-day Saints, they are laden with deep symbolic significance, as the late scholar Hugh Nibley pointed out so eloquently in his own notable commencement address titled, “Leaders and Managers.”
LGBTQ brothers and sisters who exercise the courage to come out to friends and loved ones should always be met first with open ears and arms. And BYU should reflect that posture even as administrators — not students — carry the primary charge to maintain a commencement ceremony’s tenor and decorum.
Once again, it’s vitally important to note that Elder Holland’s direct audience for his remarks was, in fact, BYU faculty and administrators, not students.
As for “musket fire” — a metaphor Elder Holland deployed to describe how professors might use their intellectual gifts to defend and honor the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ when it’s misrepresented — there is a strong Christian tradition of standing up and sharing one’s beliefs.
It doesn’t get more germane to the gospel ethos than the apostle Paul speaking before King Agrippa or at Mars Hill. And we all know the line from 1 Peter — Christians are called to give a reason for the hope within them. The next line, however, is less well-known but equally relevant; one translation puts it this way: “But do this with gentleness and respect.”
The words remind me of yet another line from Elder Holland, but in a different talk: “Defend your beliefs with courtesy and with compassion, but defend them.”
Elder Holland no doubt channeled the collective sentiment of tens of thousands of BYU alumni — including yours truly — when he said to faculty and administrators: “I will go to my grave pleading that this institution not only stands but stands unquestionably committed to its unique academic mission and to the church that sponsors it.”
Religious-based higher education has defined much of the academy’s praiseworthy tradition; it has inspired triumphant feats of selfless service and intellectual discovery. Today, schools like BYU stand alongside Notre Dame, Wheaton, Tougaloo, Yeshiva, Pepperdine, Texas Christian, Southern Methodist, Baylor and so many others, in carrying on the noble work of striving earnestly to synthesize the best of Athens and Jerusalem.
Those who hope to extinguish these institutions — often because they disagree with religious-based policies, including those that prohibit sexual activity outside of traditional marriage — would ultimately deprive an increasingly homogenous educational landscape from the distinct gifts and good these institutions offer.
But this doesn’t absolve religionists from looking inward and seeking to improve. Believers like me must do better to live with complete fidelity to God’s commandments, which means extending pure charity toward all, including and especially the LGBTQ community that has too frequently been marginalized within religion’s own pews. As the good book puts it, “these things ought not so to be.”
Believers must also support institutions of higher learning in their efforts to extend the blessings of faith to future generations.
I went to Yale for graduate school. For roughly 170 years — up until 1927 — Yale required daily attendance at religious services. They only stopped because there wasn’t enough room in the chapel to accommodate the school’s growing student body. But, by the mid-20th century things had changed so dramatically on campus that William F. Buckley felt compelled to critique what he saw as an antagonism toward faith in his famous book, “God and Man at Yale.”
In 1892, the noted Harvard president Charles Eliot visited Utah and, according to the journal of Latter-day Saint Apostle James E. Talmage, “drew a very pleasing comparison between the establishment and development of the Church School system of the Latter-day Saints and the founding and growth of Harvard University.” Last week’s announcement regarding their recent chaplaincy hire shows how Harvard has shifted in the intervening years.
For religious colleges and universities to continue offering the unique form of education that links faith and reason, they must remain fixed on their godly mission. This means fidelity to commandments and orthodoxy, of course. It also means caring for those who feel left out and making sure they belong, which is the very quintessence of Christianity. It’s no wonder, then, that BYU announced a historic Office of Belonging last week. This isn’t lip service or merely a public relations maneuver; it is born out of deliberation, research and an institutional look in the mirror that reflects integrating recommendations from students and faculty alike.
BYU’s godly mission also means calling out cruelty and bigotry. As the university tweeted this week: “We unequivocally condemn behavior and language that is disrespectful and hurtful. There is no place for hateful speech, or prejudice of any kind, on our campus or in our community.” BYU’s thread continued: “We are striving to create a community of belonging composed of students, faculty and staff whose hearts are knit together in love. Every student and individual on our campus deserves to feel that belonging.”
BYU and those of us who cherish the school must do all this and be ready to give an answer for the hope within us. It is this hope, to quote Elder Holland, that “is linked inextricably to our faith in God and our charity to others.”