Friday, June 16, 2006

The Church Is Not A Democracy--Nielsen Not Thoreau

The Salt Lake Tribune, predictably has joined the cacophony of voices against the Church for what it has described as Nielsen's participation in the grand tradition of "The Duty of Civil Disobedience". In this morning's editorial, The Tribune notes:

To fully participate in the grand tradition of what Thoreau called "The Duty of Civil Disobedience," it is necessary to risk retribution from the powers that be. Otherwise, you can be dismissed as just another crank. Or, if you lack amateur standing, an editorial writer.

Jeffrey Nielsen is no crank. And, though all he has lost so far has been a part-time teaching gig, he may still claim kinship with those who have risked imprisonment or worse by speaking truth to power.
The Tribune's editorial page--not always one to be bothered with the details when it writes about the LDS Church, should take another look at this one. First, Thoreau's piece (which in fact was and remains a masterpiece) was originally titled Resistance to Civil Government. Why is this important? Well, none of us have a choice about whether or not to be subject to government. We as Americans are born into our democracy. It has the power to coerce. It has the power of the purse and sword--powers that can be enforced--and often are--against the will of its citizens. Civil Disobedience as envisioned by Thoreau remains a powerful force as a check on civil governments all over the world.

The Church, is an organization with which one affiliates by choice, not force. No one has to be a member of the Church. No one even has to be affiliated with BYU either as a student, faculty, or staff. Yet, Mr. Nielsen voluntarily chose to do so--with his eyes wide open. And, as a faculty member, Mr. Nielsen knew full well what the boundaries were before he ever started philosophizing--for money--down in Provo. And, more importantly, he agreed to those boundaries, in writing.

The Tribune continues:

After this term, Nielsen will be out as a philosophy instructor at Brigham Young University. That is because he wrote, with his eyes wide open, a commentary published in the June 4 Tribune criticizing a political stand taken by his church, the church that owns BYU, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Wrong! Nielsen is out because he labeled the BYU trustees' (who also happen to be Prophets, Seers and Revelators of his Church) position on a critical moral issue already well established by the Church, "
troubling, immoral, discriminatory, and based on fear and superstition." This is a big deal, considering Nielsen, claims to be a believing LDS member. The LDS Church believes that The Brethren are inspired by God, not by fear, discrimination, superstition, and immorality. By extension the implication is that these men themselves and their views on the family as the fundamental unit of society as well as gay marriage is "troubling, immoral, discriminatory, and based on fear and superstition."

Furthermore, Nielsen chose as his venue, the Salt Lake Tribune, the most public avenue available. It is one thing to disagree with the Church's position. It is quite another to publically ridicule that position in the press, and all over the world. Nielsen knew before he put pen to paper that because of his position as a part time BYU faculty member, because of the highly charged moral issues involved, because of recent First Presidency announcements on the issue, and because of the political climate that his chosen method of expression would do great harm to the Church and BYU in terms of bad publicity. Yet, he went right ahead to exercise his "freedom of speech." Choices have consequences--and Mr. Nielsen is now experiencing his.

Continuing, the Tribune opines:
BYU is a private organization, owned by another private organization. If it thinks it necessary to dismiss anyone for speaking out of school, it has that right.

It is the beauty of civil disobedience, though, that those who exact the punishment also take some risk.

BYU and the church will now be criticized in some circles as being overly harsh and for forgetting the mission of a university to tolerate and nurture different strains of thought. More importantly, Nielsen's dismissal calls attention - more attention than was raised by his initial writing - to one of his main points.

That point was that by taking a public stand in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, the church's leadership went beyond its normal role of defining moral behavior for its own faithful and sought to determine law for all Americans.

The church has an unquestioned legal right to take such a stand, but no expectation that it can do so without being itself labeled, by some, as speaking out of turn.

A self fulfilling prophecy to be certain. Thank you Tribune for joining the cacophony of criticism against the Church and BYU--never one to miss a cheap shot against the Church, one can always count on the Salt Lake Tribune to come through in its self appointed role as the LDS Church watchdog.

Dissent without risk, by individuals or institutions, scarcely qualifies as dissent at all. Without the possibility of retribution, dissent has little power to change anything.

This debate will continue, within the church and without, in public and in private. No matter the outcome, Jeffrey Nielsen will know that, when faced with the choice, he did his duty to his conscience rather than take the easy way out. And how many of us can say that?
Nonsense! Mr. Nielsen's duty as a part time BYU faculty member was not to breach the terms of his employment contract. His duty as a faithful Latter-day Saint was not to publically ridicule and humiliate the governing body of his Church in the time, place and manner he chose. In fact, it was he who took the easy way out, by seeking, and now obtaining his 15 minutes of fame in joining the popular political discourse of his time. He took the easy way out by taking cheap shots at The Brethren and his Church. Sorry Tribune; but, the Church is not a democracy and Mr. Nielsen is no Henry David Thoreau.


Blogger nicolaepadigone said...

worse is, he took advantage of his position, identifying himself as affiliated with BYU, thereby making a point that his view represents BYU.

It is one thing to express your point as a private citizen, but wholly another to do so representing an organization that you are deriding.

It really makes it hard for someone not to see that he's done this so he could get his name and profile out for other jobs elsewhere at the expense of his current job.

Friday, June 16, 2006 7:21:00 AM  
Blogger Pris said...

It is Nielsen's duty as a moral human being is to stand up for what he thinks is right. For that, whether we agree or disagree with the conclusion or methods, he should be praised.

Friday, June 16, 2006 8:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A hypothetical for you:

Imagine for a moment that you support gay marriage (I know you don't, but pretend!) Imagine you thought that denying marriage to gays was discriminatory and immoral. Imagine that your conscience was very clear on this matter. (Pretend!)

Now, imagine you teach at BYU. Are you saying that BYU professors should subordinate conscience to the institution? Given Nielson's obviously strong views about the issue, would it have been more "moral" for him to have kept quiet? What should he have done? And what are the wider implications?

I know that you believe that as an employee of the institution, he owes them his loyalty. I understand that sentiment. At what point, however, should we sacrifice loyalty for conscience, if ever?

Friday, June 16, 2006 9:39:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Thanks all for your comments. I've got tons at work to wade through today; but will attempt to respond at some point over the weekend. Ronan, I'm already pretending for the sake of your response that I support SSM. It should put me in the proper frame of mind when I respond.

Friday, June 16, 2006 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger nicolaepadigone said...


If I may answer with my view, he should not speak as a representative of the University, but as a private citizen. He made clear in his op-ed that he represented BYU.

Friday, June 16, 2006 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Ronan, this doesn't answer your question, but wouldn't it be immoral for such a person to teach at BYU or be a member of the Church. Voluntarily supporting institutions that do immoral things is immoral, no?

Friday, June 16, 2006 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger Prof. Ormsbee said...

Hey Guy,

You and your readers may be interested to read a well-reasoned consideration of BYU's academic freedom policy that is critical of both the university *and* the faculty. Although you won't like all of it, I think some of it will resonate with what you've said here:

Friday, June 16, 2006 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Prof. Ormsbee said...

Darn, it did that thing where it cuts off URLs. If you triple click it, it will actually capture the entire URL and you can paste it in the browser. Sorry, I've forgotten how to create live links in HTML in these comment boxes.


Friday, June 16, 2006 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger nicolaepadigone said...


this is how to create the link:

< a href = " http:// yada yada " > Your title here < / a >

does that help?

Friday, June 16, 2006 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Nielson said...


If someone who teaches at BYU feels that the church and the brothren are immoral, they should seek employment elsewhere.

Friday, June 16, 2006 11:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is something else amiss in Nielsen's letter. If I'm remembering correctly, he affirms his support of the brethren as prophets, seers, and revelators in one place; then contradicts them publicly in another. Even as a piece of philosophical writing (his discipline, right?) it doesn't hold together well (as I said, if I'm remembering correctly).

Reponding to ronan's "hypothetical": If found myself in the position of feeling strongly on an issue that has been so clearly stated, if I were intellectuall honest with myself, I would need to decide whether 1) I should rethink my stand because the leaders I sustain as prophet, seers, and revelators hold a different view; or, 2) change my place of employment, because I can no longer adhere to a code of honor I signed before I was permitted to be employed there.

The fact is, Nielsen did neither. That leaves me with two conclusions. He was ignorant of the consequences (unlikely, especially since he has publicly said he was not) or he was intentionally grandstanding while he had the chance (how many "former instructors at BYU" would have been given the same level of credability by the press, even in the SLTrib?)

Another often overlooked issue here is he is a part-time instructor. Not an assistant, associate or full professor. Not even a full-time instructor. In the hierarchy of a university, an instructor is below a professor (of whatever rank), and a part-time instructor is usually temporary or adjunct. His long-term prospects at the university were tenuous at best--long before this incident.

I sincerely wish Nielson and his family the best.

Friday, June 16, 2006 12:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another scenario:

Johns Hopkins University does all kinds of work for the DoD. Let's say I disagreed with that and decided to voice it publically. I think I would be within my rights to do so, and I do not think I would be fired. I also do not think I would need to resign. I hear professors taking positions against the University quite often, sometimes in writing.

Friday, June 16, 2006 1:30:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think there are different ways of expressing disagreement.

Nielson expressed himself in an editorial statment.

BYU expressed itself in a termination notice.

Friday, June 16, 2006 9:40:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Nielson said...


I think I could see in the JH DoD example that if an employee were vocal enough about how immoral the leaders of JH were in what they were pursuing, that it could be viewed as disruptive enough to do something about it. A transfer, change of assignment, termination, something. No?

Saturday, June 17, 2006 5:42:00 AM  
Blogger D-Train said...

I agree completely with Ronan. In practice, one does not agree 100% with any institution of which one is part. I don't think it's legitimate to insist on absolute loyalty, especially in an academic setting. In the hypothetical that Eric mentions, the Johns Hopkins professor would probably not be fired. Opposing the actions of the administration when they're not right is essential to create a real university community. Just another example of BYU's refusal to make the university anything other than a great high school run by the Brethren. And that's fine: it's just what it is.

Saturday, June 17, 2006 3:49:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This discussion needs to lighten up.

The Johns Hopkins analogy might be more instructive if it was posited as a disagreement over medical praxis.

Let's say the university represents a traditional preference for using surgical gloves to maintain a sterile environment in the operating room.

A popular group of advocates opposing continued use of gloves argues that it discriminates against them because some have two left hands.

A teacher at the medical school is convinced that the anti-glove coalition is correct and the university establishment is just trying to impose their traditional glove bigotry.

Saturday, June 17, 2006 7:37:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

To develop the scenario a bit further, the anti-glove proponents argue that glove preference is a political issue, and the medical school has no business dictating political positions to its medical practitioners.

The anti-glove teacher at the medical school publishes a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine outlining his personal reasons for opposing the glove doctrine. There is a strong suggestion that this teacher would promote his anti-glove stance in medical school forums.

The medical school has never entertained doubts about the glove controversy.

Should they now humor the anti-glove advocates, whom they know are wrong, just to demonstrate how open-minded and progressive they are?

Saturday, June 17, 2006 9:45:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

nicolaepadigone: Thanks for your comments. I agree 100% that Mr. Nielsen in fact took advantage of BYU--particularly after reading today's SL Tribune article. Mr. Nielsen becomes less and less a sympathetic figure the more I learn about him.

pris: Mr. Nielsen had an equally moral duty as a human being to be open and honest with BYU about his true personal beliefs about The Brethren and the Church. He obviously lied about them both to BYU when he was hired. Should he be equally praised for that?

Sunday, June 18, 2006 8:02:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Ronan: Thanks as always for stopping by and visiting. The short answer to your questions are:

1. BYU professors agree before being hired that they will not seriously and adversely affect the university mission or the Church, including expression that would include expression with students or in public that:

a. contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy;

b. deliberately attacks or derides the Church or its general leaders; or

c. violates the Honor Code because the expression is dishonest, illegal, unchaste, profane, or unduly disrespectful of others.

If the BYU instructor cannot agree to those terms, he should not accept employment at BYU. There are a myriad of other institutions where he might be a better fit. Mr. Nielsen apparently lied to BYU when he was hired, since his beliefs as reported by today's 6/18/06 Tribune clearly fall within the above guidelines, and were beliefs he has held for quite some time.

2. It would have been more moral for him to accept employement elsewhere, and then he could have still made this pitch to the Tribune about how backward The Brethren and the LDS Church are about gay marriage. I have no quarrel with him having the opinions he holds, or even expressing them. But, in this case he expressed them in a manner which he agree he would not do as a condition of his employment at BYU. Mr. Nielsen was dishonest in that regard, and took advantage of the Church and BYU. I have very strong feelings about people who knowingly do that.

3. I don't see there are terrible implications for BYU, other than the bad press it has received as a result of Mr. Nielsen's actions. I don't believe this is an academic freedom issue in the least.

4. I'm not suggesting Mr. Nielsen or anyone sacrafice loyalty for conscience. Mr. Nielsen could have just as easily expressed his conscience after he resigned from BYU. Why not do that, rather than take advantage of the Church and BYU by using them as he did? I find that morally reprehensibe. Don't you?

5. As for John Hopkins: It is a different type of university, and does not have the same type of commitment that it expects from its professors. I do not think you should be fired for disagreeing with John Hopkins in your hypothetical. But, then again, you didn't agree as a condition of your employment that you would refrain from the type of criticism you suggest in your hypothetical.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 8:19:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

d-train: I think I've covered what I would respond to you, in my response to Ronan; but, your comment that BYU is nothing more than a high school is silly and not serious enough to merit any further response.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 8:21:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Jim Cobabe: Thanks for your comments. I laughed and laughed about the glove analogy. I like your blog too. One of these days when I get around to updating my blogroll, I'm going to add it. Your's too Nic.

Thanks again for your comments.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 8:23:00 AM  
Blogger D-Train said...

Guy, that's hyperbole. I'm sure you recognize it. The point I'm making here is that BYU's decision to embrace an ultra-conformist attitude differentiates it significantly from the conventional university. Let's just be honest about that.

I don't think anyone is arguing that BYU's policy is inconsistent: they've demonstrated that this is how they operate. You make five points in response to Ronan that make the same argument: Nielsen made a commitment that he should have kept. I agree that Nielsen shouldn't have taken the job and shouldn't have expected better than he was treated. However, you don't respond to the argument that nobody agrees completely with the institution at which they're employed. Other institutions deal with dissent and, amazingly, don't collapse. Why should BYU prefer the model it has?

To summarize: the question isn't whether BYU has the right to fire Nielsen or whether Nielsen had any right to expect better. We can all agree that they did and he didn't. The question is whether the policy is right. Your characterization of BYU as being "used" by Nielsen puzzles me. Nobody's suggesting that BYU didn't receive fair instructional value. Indeed, I'd say that this argument is at the heart of the issue. You seem to be arguing that an essential part of the BYU experience is a complete lack of criticism of the Church, any of its policies, and the institution itself. Fine. That might be the right sort of experience. The question here is whether we should uncritically assume that this is the right sort of experience.

In any event, we need to confront the fact that BYU isn't just a great university, with everything any other school has, plus a faith-promoting environment. Even if you get the faith promoting environment, you're sacrificing something for it, which is at the heart of this discussion.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger Pris said...

pris: Mr. Nielsen had an equally moral duty as a human being to be open and honest with BYU about his true personal beliefs about The Brethren and the Church. He obviously lied about them both to BYU when he was hired. Should he be equally praised for that?

Guy: Nielsen had a moral duty as a prospective employee of BYU to be open and honest with BYU about his true personal beliefs about the Bretheren and the Church. Assuming he lied--I do not think it quite as obvious as you do--then he has been immoral. For this, no, he should not be praised. However, this doesn't alter my first statement one bit. In fact, I agree with D-Train's last comment: that Nielsen was rightly fired due to BYU's policies as they now exist; but that we should, at least, figure out if the policies are "moral" to begin with. It is my conviction--and I don't expect anyone to agree with me here--that the best way to do this is to confront those things we view as injustices. This, I believe, is our moral duty to each other.

Monday, June 19, 2006 8:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 6:18:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

D-Train: Ah yes, hyperbole--thanks for the reminder. I so seldom see hyperbole in the bloggernacle, I'd almost forgotten what it was ;-)!

Anyway--YES! I agree BYU is different in many significant ways from most secular universities; but, what you call "ultra conformist" I would argue applies more to universities which march in lock step to the idea that all faculty must at all times be allowed to speak about anything they want at any time without any natural consequence.

Like it or not, BYU is directly affiliated with Christ's Church here on earth. It has a dual role of providing its students with an academic atmosphere where they learn out of the best books and also by study and by faith. BYU's trustees, whom I and many others consider to be Prophets, Seers and Revelators, have set up the policy they have, which I believe to be inspired.

Other secular universities do not have the same role and mission as BYU. Their boards of trustees are not inspired men in the same sense as are the trustees of BYU. This is what I believe. I further believe that the framework which the Brethren have set up at BYU in the long run will work better in this fallen world than will the frame work set up at other secular universities.

Dissent is not evil in at of itself. But, there comes a point at which dissent and open criticism of establish Church Doctrine, comes with a consequence. I'm not arguing Mr. Nielsen has no right to believe what he wants, or even express those views how he wants. As I've said over and over, he just has to accept the consequences.

I feel Mr. Nielsen used BYU in that he almost certainly knew prior to his discussions with the Salt Lake Tribune exactly what type of reaction there would be to his comments. He had to know there would be a mountain of bad press toward the Church and BYU because of his actions, and because of his affiliation with BYU. He is now the new poster child of oppression amongst the on-line anti-Mormon crowd. I'm sure you've see that yourself on their websites. I know I have. He used BYU and the Church, in my view to further his own secular career (a fair inference from all that has transpired).

I am arguing that an essential part of the BYU experiecne for professors and those who teach there is not to contradict established Church Doctrine and FP and Q12 statements on that doctrine. I am arguing that BYU professors and instructors may not, without some consequence, call Church Doctrine and pronouncements on that doctrine by the FP and Q12 as immoral, troubling, etc., etc.

You and I have a fundamental disagreement that students necessarily give up some academic benefit for attending BYU. Just because the secular world so proclaims does not make it so. I believe in the Brethren's vision for BYU. I believe a student can get as good an academic experience at BYU as that student wants to get.

Yes, BYU does not have the secular reputation of some other universities in our country; but, they do have a good reputation, and it is growing.

Thanks for your comments--they are well thought and reasoned.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 7:49:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Pris--since you and D-train appear to be on the same page I won't repeat the entire response I just made to D-train. Let me just say ditto to what I just posted; but, I do appreciate and respect your point of view. Thanks for stopping by and expressing it. We just have a fundamental disagreement on whether BYU gives as great a secular education to those students to attend there. I believe they do, even in the enviroment which exits there.

That is not to say BYU is perfect, or every policy and practice there is perfect. I do believe, however, the policy of having consequences for faculty openly criticizing Church Doctrine and Leaders the way Mr. Nielsen did is a good policy.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 7:54:00 AM  

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