I support Free BYU’s cause because I share the LDS church’s stated belief in the importance of universal religious freedom. I also support it because I am one of the many who have been affected by the policies of BYU’s that are in direct conflict with this belief. Before I go on, I suppose I should give my Mormon resume – not to brag but rather to show that my understanding, testimony, and love of Mormonism, the church, and BYU were very real, very fervent, and very deep.
I’m a recent graduate of BYU who was staunchly LDS for 25 years. In high school, I drove myself and my sister a half hour to church twice every week, won a scripture mastery competition, graduated from seminary, and became an Eagle Scout. I knew so strongly that BYU was the only place for me that I didn’t even bother applying anywhere else even though my perfect GPA and other achievements would have afforded me many other options. After freshman year of college, I served a 2-year mission and fell so deeply in love with the scriptures and with church doctrine that I spent the entire month after I returned finishing the scripture outlines that I had started in the mission field. One of them organized and summarized 400 different verses on love and charity.
Mormonism wasn’t just something I did; it was something I was. It wasn’t something that I was a part of or that was a part of me; it was woven into every fiber of my being. It was completely entangled with my personal identity. To me, it wasn’t merely a belief system; it was Truth with a capital T. It was the very foundation of my worldview and the lens that I saw the world and everything in it through. It was the entire context in which I saw myself and my eternal future. In my mind, any attempt to describe reality without acknowledging the unassailable truth of Mormonism was incomplete at best and downright false at worst. This truth was so self-evident to me that I couldn’t understand why at least 99.9% of the world refused to believe in it and practice it as enthusiastically as I did.
This enthusiasm was driven by my love for truth – not just religious truth but truth of all kinds – which also drove me to major in physics. Church doctrine was so true to me that I knew that anything that conflicted with it simply had to be wrong. I KNEW it. And this is why when, at the beginning of my senior year, I stumbled upon a piece of information that did conflict with it, I knew it couldn’t be right. Determined to prove it wrong, I looked into it further with original historical sources (many of which are published by the church and BYU) and soon found that the deeper I looked, the more it checked out. My every attempt to disprove it further solidified its validity until eventually there was no denying it. This was the most shocking thing that ever happened to me. I wanted so badly to deny it or ignore it, but my love for truth and intellectual integrity wouldn’t allow me to. One problem was that this wasn’t a small issue. It was a big one. And it couldn’t be reconciled with anything I had been taught my whole life. Another problem was that the more studying I did, the more it appeared to me that issues just like this one were so numerous that they were difficult to count. Furthermore, I was baffled by the fact that things so significant could have been withheld from me for so long. How did they never come up in Sunday school, in seminary, on my mission, in my institute classes, in my BYU religion classes, in BYU devotionals, in firesides, or in General Conference? Didn’t my teachers and church leaders all care about truth as much as I did?
I came to find out that some of the more educated among them did know about such things to some extent but avoided talking about them in the name of “promoting the faith of our youth”. I felt betrayed and alone but held out hope that reasonable faith-promoting responses to these issues existed. The more I looked, however, the more it became evident to me that none did exist. As hard as I tried, there was simply no way for me to reconcile this state of affairs with the notion that the church was what it claimed to be. I was eventually forced to conclude that the beliefs I had loved and internalized weren’t what I thought they were. This conclusion was not one that I chose to draw or wanted to draw; it was one I was compelled to draw by the culmination of the information and arguments I had been exposed to and the reasoning faculties I had been given.
Naturally, my “shelf” collapsed. The foundation of my worldview crumbled and consequently, every hope and belief I held dear shattered into a million pieces (or so it felt at the time). The dreadful feeling this filled me with is hard to describe. It was close to how I felt during my worst breakup but it was worse and lasted much longer. Losing a girl that I loved and hoped to spend eternity with was similar to losing the faith that I cherished and planned to keep forever except that the latter’s implications were even more far-reaching and involved losing something that had been with me my whole life.
For two weeks, the despair was enough to make it hard to eat, sleep, go to class, or get schoolwork done. I desperately wanted to talk to someone about it but didn’t think I knew anyone who would understand. Finally, I remembered that I had recently bumped into an old friend who I suspected had lost belief herself. I sent her a message asking her to call me, which she soon did. She wanted to talk but was so surprised by the news of my lost belief that she suspected I might have been spying on her for the Honor Code Office, trying to pry into her personal business in order to use it against her. While this might sound paranoid at first, you should know that similar things had happened to her before. Because of this, she had to grill me for a while before she felt comfortable opening up. As we talked, she made it crystal clear to me that loss of belief was not tolerated at BYU and that if I planned to stay there, I needed to do whatever it took to keep it under wraps until I graduated.
I took her advice seriously, but at the same time, the thought of having to practice and pretend to believe something I didn’t for any extended period of time sounded awful. I wanted to live as authentically and true to my conscience as possible and didn’t see how I could while wearing a mask and putting on a charade. I also wanted to be honest and felt that pretending to be something I wasn’t would make a liar out of me. Luckily, I had a good relationship with my bishop and thought he would try to understand rather than try to punish me for what I had been going through. He was (and is) a very kind and loving man who I still have great respect for and keep in touch with occasionally.
As expected, he was kind and nonjudgmental toward me and treated me like an adult with a legitimate viewpoint, which I greatly appreciated and will always remember, especially since many bishops and other leaders out there can be much more condescending and unreasonable in these situations. However, he did say that he wasn’t sure whether I should still be at BYU. As a result, I’m not sure whether he would have signed an ecclesiastical endorsement if I had needed him to (fortunately, I was in my senior year and thus didn’t need one). He also felt obligated to require that I attend church at least every other week and continue holding a calling until I graduated. In order to avoid any issues with the Honor Code Office that could have kept me from graduating after five grueling years of college, I complied with his requirements.
I don’t blame my bishop for doubting whether I should be allowed to stay at BYU because of my change in belief or for requiring me against my conscience to remain active in the church. These thoughts and actions were a natural product of the environment he served in. I also won’t claim to have been subjected to some unbearable hardship by having to go to church every other week for a few months. That isn’t the point. The point is that the moment I realized that my honest inquiry and soul searching had lead me to conclusions other than what I had been raised to believe, I became an outcast in my own land. After over four years of being a diligent student, a faithful church member, a loyal tithing payer, and a strict Honor Code adherent, as soon as I followed the church’s counsel to find out for myself whether the restored gospel was true, BYU didn’t want me anymore. I had become dead to them. During the hardest time of my life, when I needed Christlike love and support the most, when my wounds were deeper than they had ever been, they poured salt in those wounds and told me I wasn’t worthy of them. They wanted me to get lost and didn’t care about the enormous burden on my life that the rejection (expulsion) could cause. The only way to avoid this rejection was to fly under the radar and pretend to believe something I didn’t. To be clear, BYU didn’t tell me directly that they no longer wanted me, but knowing that they only wanted me for who they thought I still was and that my kind wasn’t welcome there hurt just the same.
Another point is that I was one of the lucky ones. If I hadn’t been in my last year of schooling or had had a less understanding bishop, I could have been expelled from school (with many credits that wouldn’t transfer elsewhere) and evicted from my housing. The alternatives would have been to either put on an act for multiple years or find a new school, apartment, job, and friends, repeat much of my coursework, and delay my graduation. These are all terrible options. No one should have to be put in such a tough spot when their only crime was to seek truth and “claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of [their] own conscience”, which the LDS Church frequently purports to “allow [to] ALL men.”
If the church is to align its words with its actions and avoid hypocrisy, it either needs to change this destructive policy of BYU’s or revise its 11th Article of Faith from “all men” to “all non-BYU students”. While it may take some time, I am hopeful that the church and BYU will eventually do the right thing. I support Free BYU because I think anything that might help them get there quicker is a good thing. Only then will they be able to lead by example in their quest to preserve religious freedom and show that it means the same thing to them that it does to the rest of us. Only then will BYU be able to say it affords its students the freedom of thought and conscience expected at any accredited institution of higher learning in the 21st century.