Today begins Utah Valley University’s annual Mormon studies conference, this year on the theme of “Mormonism and the Art of Boundary Maintenance.” (The event is free and open to the public, so please join us if you are able to.) For the next three days, we will explore how America in general and American Christians in particular have drawn lines that often exclude Mormons, but also how Mormons have drawn their own lines that often exclude their own.
A bit of context: Drawing boundaries is, perhaps, one of our most human activities. Our individual identities are formed not only though interaction with people in our own families and social groups, but by comparing ourselves to those outside these groups. We come to think of ourselves as being part of one group and not of another. I define my own identity as a man, for example, not only in relation to other men but also in contrast to women. Group identities are, likewise, a product of both what they are and what they are not, what they represent and what they oppose. Democrats, for example, form their identity both in relationship with other Democrats and in opposition to Republicans. Group identities can be formed in many ways—by nationality, by ethnic group, by language, by occupation, by political or religious beliefs, etc.—but each is created as much by what it is not as by what it is. Groups enforce these boundaries in different ways. Some enforce boundaries informally through social stigma or subtle ridicule, others by formal excommunication or disenfranchisement. Ultimately, we humans are very tribal creatures.
For this conference, we are examining Mormons in politics and public life; Mormon responses to feminists, homosexuals, and polygamists; how the temple creates boundaries; and how Mormonism has been accepted and shaped by inter-religious dialogue. There are many more boundaries we could have explored (stay tuned for a conference next year on race and identity).
One topic we are not considering is very close to home for me: how we Mormons draw boundaries that exclude each other based on our beliefs and ideas. What I’ve found most interesting is how we tend to be more accepting of those outside our faith (who may have radically different beliefs than ours) than we are of those inside our faith (who may have beliefs that are much closer to our own). The heretic poses more of a threat than the infidel.
In some cases, all it takes to be viewed with suspicion by fellow ward members is to vote for a Democrat. For others, it may be to disagree with a particular policy or interpretation of scripture. Brothers and sisters who find themselves on these borders often feel alienated, forced to silence, and unable to connect with other members in their ward. If they remain active, they lead solitary spiritual lives. And fellow members lose out on the opportunity grow from the insights these members might share.
In 1992, Pulitzer-winning scholar, feminist and active Latter-day Saint., Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was asked to speak at the BYU Women’s Conference. For unstated reasons, the BYU administration refused to grant permission for her to speak on campus. One can only guess that the reason was Ulrich’s moderate feminist views. The AAUP has documented other areas where BYU has censured Mormons who were viewed as having heterodox views.
I believe but cannot prove that I have been a victim of this same kind of censuring: Back in 2010, BYU celebrated the 100th birthday of Hugh Nibley with a lecture series that included many Mormon scholars and individuals who were close to Hugh. I was not invited to speak. I would never claim to be an expert on anything, but the life of Hugh Nilbey is one area where I could claim expertise since I am his (only) biographer. As a conference organizer, I would never presume to host a conference focusing on a particular individual without inviting his or her biographer. It became clear to me, although I never received a response when I asked directly, that I had been blacklisted like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich had been almost twenty years earlier. While I didn’t mind not having to prepare a lecture for the event, it was awkward when people would ask me why I wasn’t speaking.
I suspect that the reason I was blacklisted was because I had published in both Dialogue (an article about Hugh Nibley visiting the Hopi) and Sunstone (an article about why it was good for men to hold the priesthood and an article about Nibley folklore). Both of these periodicals have published excellent scholarship about Mormonism. While some of those articles have admittedly been less than orthodox, I don’t believe mine were. Rather than judge individual articles, BYU has often made judgments about authors based solely on where they published their work. So in these cases, one is judged a heretic without even looking at the specific beliefs.
I bring these examples up not to ridicule BYU or my Mormon community. I love both deeply. But I do believe that we need to make more room for different ideas and different interpretations. I remember my father-in-law saying that the gospel can withstand critical thought and challenging ideas. He used to say, “the gospel is like a football; you can kick it around all you want but it’s still going to be there when you’re done.” Another great Hugh, Elder Hugh B. Brown, once urged the students, faculty, and administration at BYU to “preserve … the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.”