“A Climate of Oppression and Fear of Reprisals”

The LDS excommunication of Kate Kelly this week and the threatened disciplinary actions against others thought to be insufficiently orthodox has reminded me, as it has others, of actions taken against several of my BYU colleagues in the mid 1990s. In the wake of Elder Packer’s fulminations against “the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement . . . and the so-called scholars and intellectuals,” BYU professors Cecelia Konchar Farr, Gail Houston, and David Knowlton were turned down for renewal or promotion because they had, respectively, spoken against abortion and for choice, celebrated prayer to a Heavenly Mother, and pointed out that South American missionaries were being beaten up and chapels burned because of the American corporate image projected, in part, by a phallic church office building (single tower, two globes poised on either side of the base).

In the general repressive context surrounding those firings, many members of the faculty and of the student body took action. The Sociology Department published a letter protesting restrictions on their academic freedom. Faculty and students raised feminist issues through an organization called “Voice.” Steven Epperson reviewed Robert Millet’s and Joseph McConkie’s book Our Destiny as biologically naive and racist. Eugene England, on learning that the Church had a committee called “Strengthening Church Members” (we called it the “lengthening the members committee) gave a fiery “J’accuse” speech at a Sunstone symposium. The BYU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors was re-established and eventually brought in investigators whose visit resulted in censure of BYU: “Much more than an isolated violation of academic freedom, the investigating committee’s inquiries into complaints at BYU have revealed a widespread pattern of infringements on academic freedom in a climate of oppression and fear of reprisals” (Academe, Sept./Oct. 1997).

Supporters of Ordain Women, in the wake of the excommunication, say they will not be silenced. I admire them. And I fear, from the BYU experience, that they will indeed be silenced.

After the embarrassments of public exposure and censure, after the open debates and heartfelt arguments and brutal firings, the Church’s university got what it wanted: silence.

In the aftermath, who is left to debate same-sex marriage, abortion, ordination of women, a Mother in Heaven, corporate culture, patriarchy, and so on? People like the supporters of Ordain Women. People like John Dehlin and Kristine Haglund and Terry Tempest Williams and Gregory Prince and Joanna Brooks and many others.

This list no longer includes members of the BYU faculty. Bert Wilson, Gene England, Bill Evenson, Stan Albrecht, George Shoemaker, Gail Houston, Cecelia Konchar Farr, David Knowlton, Lynn England, Susan Howe, James Cannon, Duane Jeffreys, Bill Bradshaw, Steven Epperson, Hal Miller, Sam Rushforth, Brian Evenson, and many others left the university or fell silent in the face of unrelenting pressure.

Supporters of Ordain Women see their work as questioning and challenging and making reasonable arguments to convince their fellow Mormons that as the Book of Mormon declares: “black and white . . . male and female . . . all are alike unto God.” After the recent admission that restrictions on giving the priesthood to blacks was a mistake engendered by racist attitudes, that seems like a reasonable course of action.

LDS leaders see the actions as apostasy. Obedience is required, not discussion. And certainly not advocacy.

My Stake President during the 1990s was a member of the BYU Religion faculty. He once told assembled priesthood holders that “the trouble with the women in our stake is that they are not priesthood broke.” Wouldn’t the members of the Church be better served by “priesthood whisperers”?

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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1 Response to “A Climate of Oppression and Fear of Reprisals”

  1. kirstenallen says:

    Beautiful, eloquent empathy for those silenced. Sad and difficult stuff.


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