Monday, March 8, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Eight

This is the latest installment in a long story about my struggles with BYU's administration after finding out that although I'd been allowed a beard in order to act in Church films (despite a rule BYU has had against beards since the late 1960s), a Sikh friends of mine had been denied permission to keep a beard in accordance with Khalsa Sikh religious practice. If you're interested in this story, you should probably start reading at the beginning.

Part Eight:

Here's a question: did I get banned from Student Activities in December of 2006 primarily because I had a beard (and would therefore be a poor representative of the Church according to BYU's thinking) or primarily because I'd written letters arguing for a policy change (and would therefore be a bad influence on poor, innocent theater students who never doubted any BYU policy on anything)?

I'll probably never know the answer, but given that I was kicked out after my photo got in the campus paper and that my letters were specifically mentioned to Rodger Sorensen, my guess is that both lines of thinking were somehow involved. I also think they're both flawed, and that the reasons why say important things for any future decision-makers who happen to be reading this blog.

1) Representing BYU:

BYU is very concerned about image. This is pretty standard for any company or organization, especially since about the beginning of the twentieth century, when media became a more pervasive part of everyday culture. BYU may care more than most organizations, though, because both BYU and the LDS Church which sponsors it a) want to be seen as good and maybe even liked for it, as Jesus' sayings about letting light shine, being a city on a hill, etc. suggest and b) get attacked and stereotyped more than their fair share, a pattern which goes back to about 1820, when Joseph Smith first starting telling people outside his family what his ideas about God were.

Because BYU wants to look good and is afraid of being attacked, it invests a lot of effort into projecting and controlling a certain image.
For example, I've heard that the publicity department performs background checks on faculty members before featuring stories about their research on the campus website. That sounds excessive, but is probably the product of long years of experience in which misdeeds by people connected with BYU or the Church are almost invariably used against BYU or the Church.

The concern with image and how they want the campus represented is probably part of the reason why the late-60s beard rule has lasted forty years. BYU believes that by producing universally clean-cut alumni, it will win the public trust.

What BYU seems to have missed is that in contemporary culture, a controlled image frightens more people than it attracts. The old anti-Mormon stereotype was that we were a fringy, radical group of polygamists who didn't believe in basic decency. The new anti-Mormon stereotype is that we're a white, hyper-conservative cult where everyone has the same haircut and matching mind control chip. The trouble is that we've been so busy fighting against the old stereotype, we haven't responded well to the new one.

When I lived in Columbus, the missionaries loved to take me to discussions because many of their investigators were worried about Mormonism's perceived lack of diversity. When they'd start meeting members like me and coming to church, they'd realize that ours is a multiethnic, multinational church--not at all what they'd expected. The physical diversity made them feel like they could fit in. That inclusiveness as far as physical type is probably far more important today than projecting a specific physical image.

If they understood the larger culture better, BYU would probably realize it's in their interest to gather all the righteous diversity they can get. Someone wondering what Mormonism has to say to the world will be more impressed by the testimonies of a dozen people who look completely different and/or have completely different interests than they will by prescripted testimonies from an endless number of church spokesmen who look and plan in exactly the same way. Diversity among university or church representatives can suggest that our morals and beliefs largely match because they work in a wide range of lives, not because we're trying to act like clones of each other.

Someone like me--who doesn't drink or smoke, believes in prayer and loves to read and talk about scriptures, who loves coming from a family with a lot of Sikhs and Jews and loves wearing a beard--is actually a great representative for a campus that needs an image more obviously welcoming of heterogeneity.

At least that's my opinion. And it's one reason why, despite BYU administrators' belief that I'm a bad representative, I don't feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about my church as if I'm a just-fine example of it.

2) Protecting Students from Dissent

It wasn't just my beard, of course, that got me banned from student activities. They also mentioned my letters. It's possible that being banned from activities was designed as some sort of punishment intended to show me, personally, the consequences of "attacking the Honor Code." A more charitable reading of the situation, however, is that BYU administrators were honestly and sincerely concerned about the negative impact I might have on impressionable young students.

They probably didn't know, of course, that I was rare among theater and film students (and, I think, part of a minority among BYU students in general) for largely avoiding R-rated movies (I've seen maybe ten in my life), in accordance with LDS teachings to be careful about entertainment with sexual, violent, and crude content. They probably didn't know that negative attitudes about Mormonism in the professional theatre community are shared by a vocal minority of the BYU student community, and that I served as a strong voice with artistic credibility (people knew I wrote well) for Mormon values in theatre. They probably didn't know that plays overtly critical of Mormonism get written in BYU classes, and they also didn't read the play of mine Rodger sent them so that they could know that I was writing as a Mormon invested in the experience of faith, not--as so many artists have done--as someone who was raised Mormon but stands outside the community and takes it as a subject of ridicule.

My guess is that BYU students who don't like the Church don't typically go ask the administration for change. They probably assume that it's a lost cause anyway, and they probably don't mind breaking BYU rules quietly--something countless students get away with.

If I'm right, then targeting people who ask for changes (especially changes as innocuous as putting back an Honor Code provision which once existed!) will mean that you mostly punish those who want to be good influences while those who want to be bad influences go about their business largely unchecked.

BYU would do well to be more selective about who it considers and treats as an enemy precisely because it already has critics and enemies enough.

In conclusion:

That I got kicked out of student activities at BYU is not, in and of itself, a big deal. I am confident enough in my religious commitments that it hasn't made me distance myself from the church, and my collaborators were brave enough that we were able to do great faith-driven theatrical work off campus after the ban. But the patterns suggested by what happened to me are more alarming. Our community will do better as we do more to embrace personal differences and focus instead on our shared core faith, instead of associating faith with certain non-gospel-essential looks or life choices. We will also do better as we learn that not every difference of opinion constitutes an assault on the church: that many differences of opinion, in fact, can help us think more deeply about what is best and what is simply tradition, habit, or under-informed policy decision.

Next: In Part Nin
e, I'll skip forward a few years to the next part of this drama.


  1. Well said, James. I hope someday you get to be a policy maker instead of a suspected malcontent.

  2. The church represents a law given to us. Just like the Law of Moses was a lower law, the modern LDS Church is a lower law in comparison to the higher laws that are not currently revealed on a holistic level.

    I am saddened when I see church members condemning others because their relationship with God differs from what Mormons consider the "right" relationship with God. I have been learning more and more that the Church is also an institution, and like you pointed out, it has to compromise and adhere to Earthly standards in order to survive on this Earth. It's far from perfect, and I don't think it'll ever be perfect, nor do I consider the LDS church an eternal entity, but rather a stepping stone and a way to help us know God.

  3. If I understand church teaching correctly, its purpose and goal is to get everybody sealed into a big chain with everyone else, so that in heaven it's a giant family net we belong to.

    That's pretty sweet, and well worth putting up with the imperfections along the way.

  4. When will we get the next installment in this series?

  5. This was really well-written, and really difficult for me to read. I'm sort of speechless.

  6. Just wow. My son-in-law just was assigned to speak about proper dress at church in sacrament meeting last week--he did a great job. But he who has spent years living in the Middle East gave a different talk than what his bishop expected, I think. He will so enjoy reading your "book" (8 chapters so far!) which I am going to send him the links for.

  7. Well said, all of it. I especially agree that we need to look at new emerging stereotypes and not just old ones. But for a church that wants to avoid confrontation or conflict, aren't they exposing themselves to a really huge Human Rights suit? I don't know about in the U.S., but here in Canada this would never have happened - or it would have been quashed within days. It is religious discrimination, no matter how you look at it. We in Canada had similar challenges to, for example, the dress/uniform code for Sikh police officers. They couldn't wear the regulation cap because of their turbans. So they simply designed a blue turban with the Police logo on it, and Bob's your uncle. Not a problem. I just don't understand the mindset you ran up against. Surely of all people, Mormons should be sensitive to the oppression and unfair treatment of other religious groups. They should be leading the country in tolerance. Thanks, James, this whole discussion has really captured my interest.
    Along the same lines, I think it's interesting how a famous fashion designer can make anti-Semitic remarks in a restaurant and end up in court for it, while someone else can make anti-Mormon slurs on Broadway and receive a Tony Award for it...

  8. I look forward to your next post! Bring it on!

    Your story reminds me of a similar work I've done on my campus, at Iowa State University, to renovate a Christian chapel in the student union to become a neutral space where individuals of differing beliefs or of no belief may feel welcomed, not out of any hostility toward religion, but out of concern that the very may non-Christians on the campus are being discriminated against by the chapel. Besides, this is a federally funded, state institution, so maintaining a Christian chapel seems to be a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Anyway, I've haven't had much success either. I'm just a lowly student whom administrators feel absolutely no reason to listen to.

    Well, cheers from Iowa!

  9. Man. This is a story worth telling.

  10. This entire issue has me mystified. LOVE ONE ANOTHER. If anyone looks around the church globally, they will see that there is not a standard of appearance for members of the church! I also feel that the church desires for others to see that- check out! I feel that BYU would be benefited by expanding their vision of a BYU grad, like you said. I feel that your cause was worthy and I hope that you can inspire the changes that need to be made. I know how important it is to Sikhs to have their beards. WOW. Good luck. Keep writing!

  11. Interesting story - where is part nine?

  12. I'm anxiously awaiting part 9, too. Can I also say that I have such a deep respect for Rodger Sorensen? His compassion, noted in your story, doesn't surprise me one bit.

  13. .

    Hey, James. I see I'm not the only one wondering about part nine. Can you not write it while you work at BYU?

  14. .

    (Do you enjoy my dangerous and unfair assumption?)

  15. Thank you for writing this. God bless you brother.

  16. This whole series is excellently written and very illuminating. Thank you for your efforts. I first read it when it was recently published, and have re-read a few times since. Will Part 9 ever be published?


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