Sunday, June 18, 2006

Nor is Nielsen Martin Luther . . .

Two days ago, The Salt Lake Tribune, compared Jeffrey Nielsen, their latest LDS martyr, to Henry David Thoreau. Today, The Tribune's implication is that he is the modern day Martin Luther for the LDS Church. Today's Tribune article begins by painting a rather bland and mundane protrait of Mr. Nielsen:

OREM - Jeffrey Nielsen drives a red minivan, but most days he takes the bus.
He goes to his LDS ward in Orem on Sundays. He likes to read and play catch with his two youngest daughters, ages 10 and 12. Lately, he has been hooked on dominoes. Most mornings, he and his 21-year-old son go jogging.

"I'm a pretty boring person," Nielsen concedes. But that is Nielsen's private self-image. His emerging public persona is anything but boring. The part-time Brigham Young University philosophy instructor has become the subject of a steady stream of letters to the editor and who knows how many office water-cooler chats since he penned a guest column earlier this month questioning his church's support of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

That attention ratcheted up this past week when BYU opted not to rehire Nielsen because his remarks in the June 4 edition of The Salt Lake Tribune publicly opposed leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on an issue they deem of supreme importance.

Now the spotlight-shy Nielsen is being flooded with even more e-mails. His name is surfacing in even more letters to the editor. And his voice is popping up in radio interviews.

But don't label Nielsen a rebel with a cause. "I'm not a revolutionary,” he says. "I'm a very flawed human being. I'm not a spokesperson for any movement." Even so, he is speaking out - as a matter of conscience if not convenience.
A couple of questions (if I might) to the Tribune and Mr. Nielsen:

Why--if you are not a spokesperson for any movement or a revolutionary; why, if you "cherish" your LDS membership; why, if you consider yourself to be just a "boring person"; why, if you truly do not want to be the subject of newspaper columns, water-cooler conversations, radio interviews, and general "ratched up" attention; why do you continue to speak with Salt Lake Tribune reporters openly and unapologetically still criticizing the LDS Church and leadership?

Well, it appears the answer--according to Mr. Nielsen is that his conscience just won't let him keep silent:
Even so, he is speaking out - as a matter of conscience if not convenience. The 44-year-old father of four not only openly questions LDS leaders on their backing of the marriage amendment, he also criticizes church statements on wedlock. In addition, he wonders about his church's position on its past denial of priesthood to blacks, its polygamous history, its membership counts and more. Nielsen, who says he cherishes his church membership, hasn't always been the questioning type.

"I was a very conformist . . . youth," he says. Reared like many Utah Mormons, Nielsen was born in Salt Lake City but did most of his growing up in Brigham City. Everyone in his immediate family was Mormon - mom, dad, three sisters and two brothers.

He graduated as student-body president from Box Elder High, earned a scholarship to BYU and served an LDS mission to Zurich, Switzerland. There he labored in one of the highest missionary leadership posts: assistant to the president. His mind-set was much different then. "I just took the line that you don't question your priesthood leaders," Nielsen recalls.
Why is it that Mr. Nielsen's conscience compels his criticisim of Christ's Church? Despite his protestations to the contrary--does he see himself as a modern day Martin Luther sent to guide The Brethren, to reform and correct LDS doctrine and practice? If so--how fortunate for us all! Who would have guessed such a reformation would come through a part time philosophy instructor at BYU nailing copies of the Salt Lake Tribune on the Church Office Building's front door? After noting how Mr. Nielsen dutifully fulfilled an LDS mission, never questioning his leaders, the Tribune continues:
Twenty-five years later, Nielsen is doing just the opposite. He believes the foundation of his about-face was laid by an introductory philosophy class he took his last semester at Weber State University . . . The philosophy class flicked on a switch in Nielsen's brain. "It opened me up to this idea of the 'world of ideas' that I hadn't ever experienced before," he says. With that light-bulb moment, poof went Nielsen's plans to attend law school. Instead, he earned a graduate degree in philosophy from Boston College, then returned to Utah and began teaching philosophy at BYU.
So, it's Plato's fault! I'm sympathetic to the notion that philosophy classes can in fact open up a person's mind to ideas. I've had a few of those classes myself (but unlike Mr. Nielsen I went to law school instead of graduating in philosophy). But, isn't it equally as likely that a person's mind can and is opened up to a world (and eternity) of ideas by praying, pondering and studying scriptures, conference talks, or even attending a lowly, unsophisticated Sacrament meeting?

His current thoughts are found in The Myth of Leadership, a 2004 book he wrote that advocates leaderless organizations and peer-based management. The book rests on two premises: Real communication can occur only between equals; and secrecy breeds corruption and abuses of power.

And so it is that the LDS Church's unbending stand against same-sex marriage isn't the only issue that troubles Nielsen. He wants LDS leaders to be more open about the church's membership numbers, its finances and its history. He wants leaders to more clearly address the church's past - and future - teachings about polygamy. (The church abandoned the practice in 1890.)

And he wants LDS temple weddings open to nonmember and non-tithe-paying parents. His reasons are both moral and personal. One of his sisters left the faith when, in her view, some church teachings didn't mesh with its history. In addition, a parent of his son-in-law wasn't able to attend the young man's temple wedding to Nielsen's daughter. "I really hope the membership has the privilege to raise these concerns and not be silenced," he says. "I don't want to attack the church. I'm not an enemy of the church. I don't want to hurt the church or destroy anyone's faith. I want to do things to strengthen the church."
I think the real Mr. Nielsen begins to emerge in these paragraphs. He's not really interested, as he suggested previously, to thoughtfully question and benevolently criticize Church leaders. He wants to dismantle the entire organization from the top down (or bottom up--depending on the point of view). So, all that "revelation" stuff on Church organization and priesthood offices, that The Prophet Joseph received from God--it just breeds corruption and is an abuse of power. Mr. Nielsen would have us throw out canonized scripture (portions of the Doctrine and Covenants) received via revelation, and supplant it with his own version of the philosophies (his) of men--mingled with scripture!

Not content to deconstruct the entire current Church hierarchy, Mr. Nielsen advocates further reforms to allow non members and non tithe payers to attend temple weddings. Why stop there? Why not open the endowment ceremony to the general public? After all that would really make us all equals. But, keep in mind Mr. Nielsen isn't attacking the Church, isn't its enemy, and doesn't want to destroy faith. He wants to strengthen faith and the Church. He comes not to bury the Church but to praise it. Are you kidding?

What of Mr. Nielsen and his future now that those corrupt, power abusing BYU administrators have so unrighteously and summarily fired him as a part time philosophy instructor?
David R. Keller, a philosophy professor at Utah Valley State College, can see Nielsen's reasoning. "He was motivated through ethical concerns, not to ruffle feathers or to create a situation of animosity," Keller says. "The tone of it was really concerned about the betterment of the human condition." Keller would like to see Nielsen teaching at UVSC one day. He already has tapped Nielsen as a speaker this fall for the Orem school's Center for the Study of Ethics, which Keller directs.
Not to worry: Mr. Nielsen has a bright future at a much more enlightened educational institution--one that has real academic freedom. Then of course there is his book The Tribune promotes in almost every article it prints. It sounds as if Mr. Nielsen is a much better fit over at UVSC or any other "secular" college or university--assuming he has the academic credentials to go beyond a mere part time instructor. My question to Mr. Nielsen is why was he so untruthful with himself and BYU administrators when he signed on at BYU as a philosophy instructor--given his true beliefs about the Church and its leadership? Was that an ethical lapse of judgment by Mr. Nielsen?

The more I read about Mr. Nielsen, the less I believe his originally stated motivation that began this ridiculous series of events: to thoughtfully question and benevolently criticize Church leaders. To the Tribune I repeat: Mr. Nielsen is not Henry David Thoreau or a modern day Martin Luther. To Mr. Nielsen: if you truly are as you portray yourself to the Tribune--the smartest thing I think you can do is stop speaking with their reporters.

16 Comments:

Blogger Dave said...

Guy, I don't think the idea that the Church is guided by revelation precludes public discussion of issues related to LDS history, doctrine, or practice by members of the Church. There is no vow of silence upon baptism.

And media coverage of "the Nielsen episode" is sort of glossing over the difference between an employment action (what happened to Nielsen) and an LDS disciplinary action (which hasn't happened). The story is about BYU, not about the Church. Big difference.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 10:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Ronan said...

I don't think Brother Nielson is aMartin Luther either. But there's one thing for sure: if he was a Luther, most Mormons wouldn't recognise him as such. I mean, Luther wasn't "a Luther" for the Catholic Church, he was a misguided apostate.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 11:59:00 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I'm sympathetic to the notion that philosophy classes can in fact open up a person's mind to ideas. I've had a few of those classes myself (but unlike Mr. Nielsen I went to law school instead of graduating in philosophy).

Same here.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 3:58:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Hi Dave,

I agree baptism does not include a covenant of silence, and that all members are free to discuss any aspect of Church doctrine in public and/or private. My objection is to the specific manner of criticism and the specific content of those criticisms made by Mr. Nielsen while employed by the Church at BYU. By objection is compounded by the fact Mr. Nielsen had agreed as a condition precedent of his employment at BYU not to do the very thing he in fact did. He knew exactly what he was doing, and did it well.

I further object to the almost martyr status confered upon Nielsen not only by the Tribune; but, the entire main stream press. That said--your points are well taken, and are ones with which I agree whole heartedly.

You and I understand the difference of the story being about BYU and not the Church--many out there I fear do not. The Church has taken as much heat in this as has BYU--I think.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 7:04:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

So Ronan . . .just what are you implying about Bro. Nielsen? ;-)

Sunday, June 18, 2006 7:06:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Stephen--guess that's why our minds were never opened up to ideas eh? :-)

Thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 7:07:00 PM  
Blogger Jim Cobabe said...

Interesting to learn about links between Nielson and UVSC. It would appear that certain faculty at that institution believe that Utah Valley should serve a liberal agenda, perhaps to balance the conservative contingent that predominates.

Perhaps Nielson's swan song at BYU is aimed at getting off on the left foot in a new job at UVSC.

Then there is always the cynic in me who wonders just how much such folks stand to gain in book sales from such a campaign. Though Nielson's book enjoyed some popularity, it probably had a short life. Do you it never occured to Nielson that a bit of public notoriety might stimulate sales?

Sunday, June 18, 2006 8:09:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Jim: "BINGO" This is exactly the type of publicity Nielsen desperately needs in his professional life. I'm not so sure how helpful it is in his personal life.

Monday, June 19, 2006 6:13:00 AM  
Blogger nicolaepadigone said...

"Jim: "BINGO" This is exactly the type of publicity Nielsen desperately needs in his professional life. I'm not so sure how helpful it is in his personal life."

that was exactly my thinking the moment I learned he was a mere part-time instructor.

Monday, June 19, 2006 6:50:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Nielson said...

I think you are right on target with all of this. Thanks for this review.

Monday, June 19, 2006 8:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Gary said...

Today's Deseret Morning News has a column about this.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 6:17:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Gary: Yes, I just read that story. Thank you for the link. I think it's the first story (at least that I've seen) printed in the News. I would have thought they would have run an editorial or something on it; but, I could have missed earlier coverage.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 6:28:00 AM  
Blogger Sherpa said...

"The 44-year-old father of four not only openly questions LDS leaders on their backing of the marriage amendment, he also criticizes church statements on wedlock. In addition, he wonders about his church's position on its past denial of priesthood to blacks, its polygamous history, its membership counts and more."

This is my favorite part of the article. WI like how the article paints questioning these as revolutionary...like this is a new deal. Total non-story imo.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 7:25:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Ruby,

Thanks for stopping by! What do you do in the government--I noticed it in your profile.

Yes, these articles on Mr. Nielsen are themselves a bit humorous. The Tribune has outdone themselves on trying to paint Mr. Nielsen as Thoreau or Luther, or some great moral and social mover and shaker.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 8:01:00 AM  
Blogger nicolaepadigone said...

"biting the hand that feeds you."

yes, i think the column in the deseret news said it best.

where are gay rights activits complaining about Terrel Owens getting fired for criticizing the Eagles's owners? yeah....

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 8:44:00 AM  
Blogger Sherpa said...

I got a kick out of the Tribune's technical misuse of Thoreau. It was obvious just glancing at the op-ed that the editorial staff needs to refresh their memory of Thoreau.


Thanks Guy,

I'm a human resource specialist in the hr policy office for the Interior Dept. I do a lot on the admin. law side of things--I'm cheap lawyer basically. ;)
Which is alright, because ironically, my favorite class during my last stint in school was admin law.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 9:12:00 AM  

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