How can I survive as a liberal at BYU?

Dear AMG:

I am a member of the church who has lived outside of Utah for the past 10 years. I attended two very liberal universities in my time away (University of Washington and Northern Arizona University), and developed very strong liberal ideologies. I have returned to Utah, and am now a graduate student at BYU.  Outside of Utah I found I was able to reconcile my political views with my church membership just fine. But the longer I am here in “happy valley,” the more I feel that this church does not define me. While I am consciously aware that it is Mormon culture, and not the gospel, that I find so annoying, I am having an increasingly difficult time separating the two. Now that I am at BYU, the discomfort is increasing, and my desire to stage my own private rebellion and discontinue my activity in the church is powerful.  My frustration is affecting my husband, and I do have children who attend church. If I make the decision to be less active it affects them deeply.  I’d be thrilled to learn whatever survival strategy you have for attending BYU as a liberal democrat. As you know, I do need an ecclesiastical endorsement.

Sincerely,

Bad Grad

To be sure, Bad Grad, BYU is a pretty intense experience. And depending on your frame of mind, it can feel like Disneyland, or it can feel like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Many moons ago, I too was a Cougar:  a sweet young teenager straight out of superconservative Orange County, California, who had the most discombobulating experience of discovering she was a liberal at heart while attending BYU and (better yet) during the very years the university made front-page headlines for getting rid of feminist faculty.

Oh dear.  I did the best I could to get through.  But it wasn’t always pretty. And it took a few years for me to enjoy visiting campus again.  But I do enjoy it now when I visit—especially the new art museum, the Bookstore fudge, the worn granite staircase steps in the Harold B. Lee library, and the beautiful grounds and Wasatch Mountains.  But am I the right person to tell you how to survive as a liberal at BYU?  I’m not sure.

Then again, I’m not sure I can tell from your original query what exactly it is about BYU that is making you feel so stir crazy. After all, you’re not a young person caught up in a regular college coming-of-age identity crisis.  You’re a grown up liberal Mormon with a family of her own studying for an advanced degree.  Can you put your finger on what about BYU is driving you nuts? Is it something you’re encountering in the classroom, in the graduate program you’re enrolled in, or with particular professors?  Is it the general campus atmosphere?  Too many Mormons in one place?  Too many earnest young shiny white bread Mormons in one place?  It sounds to me like it might not be BYU but your recent move back to super-majority-Mormon-conservative Utah County that’s giving you trouble. Or perhaps you’re experiencing a transition in your faith life.

Whatever it is, if it’s affecting your marriage, it deserves to be taken seriously. So that’s my first bit of advice to you:

1.    Try to do some self-examination to get a better grip on the feelings you’re experiencing.  Try to discern if this is really about BYU, or if this is about your recent move, or your shifting relationship to the Mormon tradition as a whole, or even your marriage.  Try to figure out what’s really eating at you, and take the best steps you can to address it head on.

And while you’re at it, don’t give up on your graduate studies.  Graduate school isn’t forever.  And you’ll be hard pressed to find as good an education for as reasonable a price as you will at BYU.  So my next three items of advice are geared to helping you stay sane while you complete your studies:

2.    Remember that you’re not the only liberal at BYU. According to a recent poll, about one out of 10 Mormons in the US identifies as a liberal.  Among Mormons with Ph.D.’s, I’d suspect that the proportions may be more like one out of three.  There are quite a few Mormon liberals on the BYU faculty who are doing their job and playing it cool.  Try to guess who they are.  Follow their lead.

3.    Remember that BYU does not define global Mormonism.  As the late great BYU President Rex Lee said back in the 1990s:  “BYU is just as much the Lord’s University as ZCMI is the Lord’s Department store.”  Rex caught some heat for saying that, but take the wry spirit of his observation to heart.  Keep your sense of humor.

4.    Find some friends with whom you can get together and debrief every once in a while—on or off campus.  Every liberal Mormon needs a posse of compassionate (if not likeminded souls) with whom they can let their ideological hair down.  Depending on where we live, sometimes we find this community only on-line.  But maybe if you’re lucky, just maybe you can find a small gang of fellow “bad grads” with whom you can share hunks of Bookstore fudge and view the original Minerva Teichert paintings at the campus museum.  And together you can giggle at the true-blue-earnestness of the younger Cougars and remember that while the BYU slogan says “the world is our campus,” the BYU campus is truly only a very small corner of the world.

Readers—rise and shout!—let’s help Bad Grad out!  What good advice do you have for this suffering Cougar?  Do you have tips on liberal life in Provo?  Or can you help her get a better grip on what she’s feeling?

Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com or follow askmormongirl on Twitter.

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16 Comments

Filed under academics, BYU, faith transition, liberals

16 responses to “How can I survive as a liberal at BYU?

  1. Russell

    I attended BYU as an undergraduate and then left for graduate school at institutions that ranged from ardent to “fire-breathing” in their liberalism (University of Kentucky and Ohio University. When opportunity knocked at BYU–the history department offered me a part-time teaching stint–I accepted. I determined that it would be a good way to get some on-the-job experience, a little money, and the chance to get some education classes out of the way for my sec. ed. credentials.

    From the closing years of BYU to the present day, I’ve realized that I have some extraordinarily liberal views (I would call them conservative, but don’t tell my conservative friends that). In dealing with BYU’s culture, I realized is that Utah conservatism is not that singular. Unfortunately, is really a product of an unholy (and somewhat pathetic) alliance between Mormons and the evangelical Protestants over the past century. Southerners marry young, evangelical Christians do the side-“EFY” hug. “Mormon culture” is really just Midwestern culture concentrated in one place.

    How to survive? First of all, I try to take personal responsibility for my own spirituality. I haven’t been that grand at this over the past few months, but when I do, I find that I get less annoyed when I hear sexist and provincial remarks over the pulpit. I suppose it’s a bit like Voltaire’s quip: “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: “O Lord make my enemies ridiculous.”

    I’m also reminded of my good friend, Wyatt, back in Kentucky. The man was an iconoclast par excellence. He ranted about Janice Kapp Perry’s lack of musical talent, about Joseph Smith’s utter lack of competence as a poet and writer. With his acerbic wit, he served as a beloved safety valve for us–saying what we all thought but were afraid to legitimize by speech. I’m not saying everyone should be like Wyatt, but I have found that well-timed frankness is generally appreciated. You might make people feel uncomfortable, but when the tough questions come, they’ll trust you more than Miss Molly with the Jell-O mold.

  2. I’m here! I’m here, too! While my story isn’t exactly the same (I’m a first time, single 33 year old BYUer from the East Coast) I’ve also wondered how I am going to survive on a campus that doesn’t seem to take kindly to my kind. Coming from my undergrad at a very liberal university in Philadelphia and subsequently large west and east coast cities that were as diverse religiously as they were ethnically, I have to try rilly rilly hard to focus on the positives about Provo specifically. This has led to some over the top moments that may or may not have set me up as the department weirdo (for example… when we said a prayer before one of my seminar classes and I giggled at the end of it and shouted, “I love BYU! We just said a prayer!”) but which I think are important in helping me remember why I’m here, who I am and how I follow my faith led by my conscience and heart. I assume that there have to be other people somewhere in my department and classes feeling the same way I do and maybe these little moments will help point out the other like minded “weirdos”. I’m glad to know you’re here. Let’s start a club. I think that’s what you’re supposed to do around a college campus???

  3. I’m here, too! I just moved to Provo from DC and have found a veritable enclave of liberal, feminist LDS folks. We meet up for dinner group often and are watching “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” this weekend. I’d love to meet you! Feel free to email me at laurenkayhouse(at)gmail.com.

  4. Try exploring more of Utah to understand, or remember, what the bigger culture is. I spent some years at Utah State, then the U, and of course during that time I made many ventures into that one valley further south. SLC was possibly the most polarized place I had ever been. Mormon or anti-Mormon, no room in the middle. Logan was small town but much more “you do you, I’ll do me”.
    Now both cities had strong, more than strong, active Mormon (and intellectual) communities, while the prevailing mood and culture (in regards to Mormonism and political ideaology) were worlds apart.
    Maybe I’m too much of a Ute, or Aggie, or maybe I’ve just been back east waaaay to long, but as someone who leans left on people, right on money… I vote you investigate if your real problem is just Provo.

  5. J.Ro

    Honestly, I just roll my eyes at the BYUisms I see and hear and move on to the more pressing matters like my research and creating a quiz to give to my class tomorrow. Super-conservatives come and go, but after too many years at BYU, I realized that *most* students are just doing what they can to live a good life. The best thing someone like us could do is to serve to broaden their horizons a little more. But most of all, try to keep in mind that Utah County is not definitive of Mormonism, and our religion (taken from the good ol’ books themselves) is probably more liberal than most BYUites would realize.

  6. Bad Grad

    Thanks for your support and comments. It is grand to find like-minded individuals. I agree completely, its the culture of Utah Valley and Provo as a whole. I’m still trying to articulate my thoughts about this. Thank you for sharing yours with me :)

    • Chip

      Bad Grad,

      As a faculty member at BYU, I can assure you that your professors are more progressive than you may think. I am a moderate and an independent who has voted nearly 100% republican in the past (especially in the states where I lived), but upon moving to back Utah I voted about 99% as a democrat, so I can understand your frustration. I never attended BYU before taking this position, so my shock and awe was probably similar. I know some great liberal faculty members who would probably allow you to vent. If you want, you can email me at chipsidman@gmail.com

      This is not my real name, for obvious reasons.

  7. reb

    I think you have to recognize that there’s organizational theory at work in a big way here. Any time you put a large group of similar people together in a community, you get “group think;” an especially insular sort of world view that relies on peer enforcement of social norms to reinforce and perpetuate the group think. I like to tell people I don’t want to live in Utah because there are “too many Mormons.” But this is true of any group. Anybody engaging in group think tends to be narrow-minded and unaware of others’ opinions. But that is irrelevant to faith and doctrine; my basic point on these pages. Culture, politics, and attitudes are not definitive or often even related to doctrine and faith. Laugh about it. Register kind disagreement to the more egregious public statements. Help people see another view.

    • Bad grad

      Reb, you are my hero.

    • Christa

      Reb – thank you thank you thank you. I resonate so much with what you say. I’m determined not to raise my kids in Utah not because of any particular beef I have with this state, but because of my Southern upbringing in an insular town full of Baptists and Catholics. Please don’t misinterpret – I had good Catholic and Baptist friends, but I saw how easy it was to ignore outsiders and never learn to defend your faith when you’re the majority. Whether it was giving our world history teacher crap for introducing BCE (vs BC – “Why do you want to take Christ out of it?”) to a student literally defending a point in Civics and Economics because “that’s what it says in the Bible,” I realized how much being a minority religiously really broadened my perspective. I wouldn’t mind my kids to growing up in a place where they learn how to answer questions both serious and laughably erroneous (“Are all Mormons blonde?”) and having friends of multiple faiths.

  8. NateT

    Your experience seems to be a mirror image of my experience going from BYU to the University of Washington for a PhD in history.

    I have honestly never met a more intolerant bunch than my fellow grad students at UW, and I can see how the same attitudes, both derived from an ignorance unwilling to be educated can grate on you.

    To go out on a ledge on an LDS blog, my advice is don’t let the bastards get you down. If you are looking for a careen in academia, then Liberalism is the norm, and you will spend a career among people who agree with you. Enjoy the challenge of living outside the echo chamber. We do not get our fundamental assumptions challenged enough.

  9. Rachel

    I’m seriously considering BYU for graduate school, but am worried sick that living there will drive me crazy. I started at BYU as a freshman undergrad, but left after the first year in anger and frustration and finished my degree (happy and relieved) at the University of Utah. When I lived in Provo, I felt incredibly isolated which in turn made me furious. Good christian people shouldn’t let that kind of thing happen–differently-minded or not, people should listen to and take care of each other. I think I understand myself much better now, and could probably handle the BYU culture better . . . but still. I’m terrified. And yet, the program I’m looking at (Masters of Public Administraiton) is so good, so cheap, and only an hour away from my family.
    I hope that I’d be able to find good roommates. More on the liberal side of things, good people who also don’t want to drink and party. I don’t know. This has been a good thread to read. Any additional advice would be welcome. I think it’d be a matter of finding the right people to be around, people who aren’t so radically conservative they make me want to punch things.

    • BG

      After a semester, I have things a bit more figured out. It was really uncomfortable at first, but the comments here helped me to chill out and realize that I was sort of over-intellectualizing as a defense mechanism. I am in a department that is tolerant of diverse perspectives, and they seem to respect my ideas. I’ve found friends who are just as liberal as I. I think being a grad student is very much different from being an undergrad – I don’t have to participate in the ridiculous social scene or any of the other shenannegans at BYU. I would say it is definitely worth considering since there seem to be so many benefits to attending BYU for you. I think you would find a much different experience than you had before.
      I could try to help you find a roommate, but I’m not sure if I would be the best resource :) email me if you’d like – anneal.mt@gmail.com

  10. Ken Knickerbocker

    Great responses. The post and follow-up comments reminds me of a Joseph Smith quote repeated in General Conference by Elder Holland just a few years ago (October 2003 I believe). “Our heavenly Father is more liberal in his views and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive… God does not look on sin with [the least degree of] allowance, but … the nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.”

  11. Matt

    If you are a member of the church and a liberal you need to do four things in this order:
    1. Read “The 5000 Year Leap” (a book commissioned to be written by God in the form of Spencer W. Kimball commissioning W. Cleon Skousen to write it. It is the definitive authority on constitutional theory, only it is not recognized as such because it was written by a prominent mormon.)
    2. Read the book “Economics in One Lesson.” (If the last book didn’t blow your mind, this one will.)
    3. Read the “Communist Manifesto” (if you can manage to finish it. It can be very pedantic and its logical reasoning is so obviously fallacious that its almost a self defeating text. Definitely the worst book I have ever forced myself to read. But it will cause you to realize that the roots of modern liberalism are based very strongly in communism.)

    4. Study again with the knowledge gained from the previous books, Jesus’ teachings, the Law of Consecration and the Articles of Faith. (Spoiler! The Law of Consecration is about as similar to Communism as Christianity is to Islam.)

    This will change your life. Unfortunately it will also turn you into a tea partier and a libertarian.

    If you can read all of these books all the way through and remain a liberal, come find me and I will pay you good money for your trouble.

    On the plus side, you will probably find yourself much more at home in BYU after reading these things, and, in fact, you will come to be annoyed with how uneducated both democrats AND republicans typically are.

  12. Consider attending a support group called “Recovering from Religion”. It’s a place to share your religious journey with others who are struggling. http://recoveringfromreligion.org

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