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.
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?
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