How BYU Turned Me Kinda Leftist (and kept me very Mormon)

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Proof that I actually go here and I’m not making any of this up.

Oh, BYU.

I catch myself saying that often. It’s not usually meant in a positive way, but the slight ambiguity is fitting.

Oh, BYU, with your beard ban and lack of caffeinated soda. Your insistence that there isn’t a demand is laughable – here I am, demanding Diet Dr. Pepper and beards, yet the vending machines still won’t deliver that sweet, sweet nectar of energy and wayyy too many men sport terrifying mustaches because for some reason those are still allowed and all that hyper-masculine hair growing energy has to go somewhere. What gives? Am I not demanding loudly enough?

Oh, BYU, and your requirement of 14 religion credits. The first three classes I took were an absolute joy, and I mean that. But they’re not all so fabulous, and fourteen credits is a lot to ask for when you’re not, you know, actually minoring in theology. There’s a pretty clear reason it takes most of us longer than four years to graduate. Just putting that out there, in case you’re listening and ever want me out of here.

Oh, BYU, and your football obsession. I’ve tried to understand, but I just don’t get it. We’re a school. It’d be cool if our funding – ahem, tithing money? – were to go to academically relevant areas. Like maybe not a fancy new basketball court, and more subsidized study abroad programs? Maybe not several free meals per day for athletes, and maybe more need-based scholarships? Heh? Maybe? Am I wrong here?

Oh, BYU, and whatever on earth was happening with the Title IX office before a few months ago. Really? How was this a thing? I think I speak for most people when I say, “Good heavens, I’m glad you fixed that.”

But I’ve learned since coming here that BYU is more than the sum of its wacky policies, frustrating honor code wordings, weird academic requirements, and sports obsession.

On several occasions, it’s acted as a sanctuary that helps me through particularly vulnerable moments. It’s been a gentle – and sometimes not so gentle – reminder that my crazy Mormon church is made up of all sorts of wackos, some of whom I happen to love and agree with, and some of whom I’m still trying to love and will never agree with. It’s a constant struggle, really, but I’m grateful for it.

It’s also important to discern between BYU administration and BYU faculty. I have almost nothing to do with administration, thank God, and I spend a whole lot of time with faculty, which is how college is supposed to work. A fun secret is that many faculty members don’t really care too much about the honor code and other administrationy things beyond the plagiarism clause. They spend most of their time teaching important things more related to our learning and less related to our hemlines.

For example, the time my freshman year religion professor taught us a lesson in responsible politics. He told us that the previous year’s election had brought many students to his office asking for advice. They mainly expressed a lack of concern, saying they didn’t care about who won because regardless of the results their lives wouldn’t change. They realized their privilege, but did not know how to motivate themselves to look past it. My professor, in all his Jesus wisdom, told them to consider the poor and the disadvantaged. He encouraged them, and us, to learn about policies that would indeed effect people, millions of people, and weigh our decision in the way Christ would – which candidate would help those who need it the most? Of course, there are arguments to be made regarding both 2012 candidates, and he acknowledged that.

It was also abundantly clear to me that he must have voted for Obama, and that surprised me, and scared me a little. I didn’t know any Mormons who’d voted Democrat other than my brother, and even that made me feel weird. How could this man, who largely taught me the basis of my own spirituality, who spoke so much of light and truth, vote for someone as ~evil~ as Barack HUSSEIN Obama? (Yeah. I was one of those.)

That same semester, in the first English class I ever took, my professor – a divorced mother of five who returned to school for her PhD after her kids were mostly grown – taught me the basics of feminist and Marxist theory. Those words also scared me. She told us that soon after starting grad school, a man in her ward expressed concern for her choice of subject matter: “You’re not going to become one of those liberal feminists, are you?” he asked, because apparently that’s an appropriate thing to ask someone at church.

“Well,” she replied, “Let’s explore both of those terms. ‘Liberal’ essentially means freedom of thought. I definitely believe in that. So does God, otherwise He wouldn’t have given us our amazing brains. ‘Feminist’ means I believe women are people, equal to men and worthy of respect. No doubt I believe in that, too. I guess it’s too late – as it turns out, I’m already a liberal feminist. Whoops.”

I laughed, because it was true. Already, my oft-scandalized mind had started shifting in unexpected ways. I studied and loved Marxist theory – the idea that humans are fundamentally equal, and of value. I stuck my toes into feminism, and no longer felt ashamed for supporting ideas that once felt so radical and out of place in my church obsessed with gender roles. I acknowledged that my teenage obsession with Sarah Haskins’ Target Women YouTube videos and enthusiasm for demanding equality in gender-divided church youth programs did not come from a vacuum. I, too, was a feminist. It just took me a while to figure it out.

Learning about Judaism and Islam in another helpful religion class taught me to love people, even the people a lot of icky politicians are accusing of terrorism. I learned to understand and embrace some of their most beautiful teachings, to find holy envy for the Hajj tradition and the stories of Mohammed. I already loved the crap out of Jews, but learning about the intricacies of their faith and attending a synagogue for a shabbat service opened my mind and taught me to love my brothers and sisters of the Book more fully, and with greater sincerity.

I took many more English classes from a whole lot of democrats, Mormon intellectuals clearly intent on brainwashing me by making me read good books and talk about them. The devils! One of them got me super interested in medieval literature and England. She brought us vellum pages of notated chant, straight from a medieval monastery – I touched history in that class, and that’s when I began wholeheartedly loving the English major. She also openly criticized LDS culture in ways I had never heard – again, scary, uncomfortable, but ultimately fortuitous.

In addition to all that, she talked a lot about phallic symbols, and I started *gasp* really, really appreciating sexual jokes. Honestly, how could I not? If there’s anything funnier than a good double entendre, it’s a diehard Mormon sharing a double entendre with a class full of diehard Mormons, many of whom will never understand the second meaning. This, as it turns out, is one of my favorite parts of BYU. Sue me.

I happen to be taking a women’s literature class this semester, and we watched in collective horror and disbelief our country nominate Donald PUSSY-GRABBING Trump as president (Yeah. I’m one of those now). I’m no longer uncomfortable acknowledging that my favorite professors usually vote Democrat, because I kinda sorta count myself among them, ESPECIALLY this particular election cycle. In women’s lit we talk about feminism on the daily, read books with bad words and distressing too-realistic scenes of violence. We take on burdens not our own in an effort to foster radical, sometimes-uncomfortable empathy. We discuss the damage inherent in prescribing strict gender roles, institutional sexism, the race issue in relation to women’s issues, gender fluidity, body politics, beauty myths, and bodily insecurities. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking, but mostly it feels like a hug I never knew I needed until now. It’s given me newfound confidence and ambition, and has truly inspired me to know the power of my own voice, my own advocacy. I’m a woman, and it’s freaking fantastic. Without a doubt, the class has been an answer to many prayers.

And no, not every English professor at BYU is a bleeding-heart liberal feminist pro-LGBT unicorn. I have had some, well, at least one, who is very much none of those things, and I love him. He’s great. He has taught me true, important, mind-bending poetry things that no one else could teach me. Really. He’s a real gem – precious, valuable, and yes, rare.

What I’ve learned here is obviously not all about politics. The lesson I have gleaned – and it’s sometimes a refiner’s fire type of lesson – is that there is indeed room for all kinds of thinking in my largely conservative faith. I know now that it’s okay to ask questions. That engaging with doubt and intellectualism, rather than inciting godlessness and weakening testimonies, can shape us into stronger, happier members of the church. That understanding anti-Mormon thought is pivotal in embracing pro-Mormon thought with any confidence. That the “philosophies of man” so often disparaged over the pulpit can teach us far more about God than we might have ever realized as young, less-educated beings.

Because in high school, I didn’t get that. I left Seattle more right-leaning than I’ve ever been, and probably ever will be, largely because I didn’t know any out-and-proud Mormon liberals – it can be hard being an out-and-proud Mormon liberal. I learned most of what I knew from my loving and supportive Mormon parents, my church leaders, and agnostic, radical-to-me Democrats who taught my AP classes. There were also some Lutheran, Catholic, and nondenominational Democrats thrown in there who couldn’t teach using their religions as backdrops because, duh, public school.

Never did I have a Mormon teacher filling me with secular knowledge. Never did I have a secular knowledge teacher fill me with spiritually-pertinent religious knowledge. BYU melds all that crap into a big, enriching, sometimes-confusing soup, and it turns out that I really, really needed that.

I probably would have ended up an English major regardless of where I went to college. I would have learned feminism and Marxism and loads of history that puts contemporary thought into relatively-leftist perspective. I’d learn that same secular half of knowledge that I have now, and I assume I would have embraced it in very much the same way.

What I wouldn’t have is a network of professors willing to hear me ask questions about our church’s harsh public stances that sometimes directly counteract the beautiful things I’ve learned in English class – the warm, nuanced, lovely versions of Christianity I’ve embraced after studying Julian of Norwich, George Herbert, T.S. Eliot, Marilynne Robinson – all people with real, tangible relationships with the same God I worship, with history to back them up.

At virtually any other school, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit in office hours and and learn that most of my professors have the same concerns that I do – the same deep pits of hurt and confusion – but remain active, faithful members, hoping for change all the while. They offer me titles of good books to read to find comfort, remind me that I, like them, belong in this faith. They teach gospel doctrine classes in their wards, raise their families, pray each day, attend the temple worthily, vocally support gay rights, vote democrat, and write scholarly articles. BYU has drilled into my head over and over again in a way that cannot be coincidental that no two of these behaviors should ever contradict one another. If someone decides that they do, that’s their problem to deal with – not ours.

Each time I think to myself, “Can I really believe that a young boy talked to God, found golden plates in the woods, and translated them to establish an entire religious movement? Can I believe that ON TOP OF professing faith to a church that considers gay people apostates? Arghhh” I can counteract those doubting thoughts with the realization that pretty much all my awesome, super-smart professors find a way to believe that narrative while also disagreeing with whatever they want, and I can too. Of course, that’s nothing I can base my faith around entirely, but the support and examples of passionate, opinionated role models kept me cleaving unto the gospel during times that little else could.

Without BYU, I wouldn’t have Mormon biology professors teaching evolution, reminding me that God is crazy-miraculous and wicked smart in the way he created this stunning earth and the living creatures on it. I wouldn’t have a chance to learn of the feminine divine, the gender-bending nature of Jesus Christ Himself, my value as a faithful Christian with a passion for learning and questioning. I wouldn’t enter the classroom knowing that my professors, classmates, and I likely come from similar, peculiar backgrounds. I am a huge proponent of diversity, but I cannot overstate the value of maintaining Mormonism as a constant.

So, yes. Oh, BYU. Oh, BYU and your weird, behind-the-times policies, and the frustrations I’m sure I will keep finding all over the place. But also, oh, BYU, and your kind of miraculous ability to keep me in touch with God, regardless of how much fringy, liberal feminist theory I read. ‘Tis a wonderful, wonderful thing.

feministme

Pictured: a happy, hippie, left-of-center young Mormon lady. Single and occasionally ready to mingle. 

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