Belated Thoughts on Elder Holland's Speech

Yet another take.

Much has been said about Elder Holland’s relatively recent speech to BYU faculty and administrators—maybe too much. So, at the risk of beating an already-dead horse, “bear” with me while I share some thoughts on, and inspired by, this topic.

First, I want to preface my thoughts with a note on my opinion of Elder Holland. Throughout his tenure as apostle, he has spoken in defense of the poor and the marginalized. He has embraced the distinctiveness of our liberal theology, and has expounded upon this rich and still relatively unexplored tradition with eloquence and deep feeling. I’m grateful for his decades of service, and I can’t fully fathom all he, or his wife and family, have sacrificed throughout his life of ecclesiastical service.

That being said, I think his remarks do not reflect him at his best. Though the verbal artistry was still there, and flashes of his deep humanity were visible, the speech was, in its entirety, mostly empty of the true Christian charity I’ve come to associate with him. His ‘call to arms,’ so to speak, and talk of “musket fire” and intellectual contention, seem light-years away from Jesus’ exhortation to be peacemakers. And, for me most disappointingly, his thinly-veiled criticism of BYU valedictorian Matt Easton’s 2019 commencement speech seemed to entirely misconstrue Matt’s actions and intentions—and the kind of person Matt is.

I was lucky enough to get to know Matt in a BYU political science class in the winter of 2018 and, later on, through involvement in an extracurricular organization on campus. After you get to know him even a little bit, it is immediately clear Matt Easton is precisely the kind of student and human being that BYU needs more of. He is unfailingly kind, hyper-articulate, highly motivated, and simply brilliant. He cares deeply about BYU as an institution, and his positivity and hard work contributed to make the classes he attended, and the organizations he led, better during the time he was there. He also happens to be gay, and unfortunately, during his time at BYU, having that sexual orientation made his life infinitely more complicated. For example, due to inequities in chastity policies between straight and gay students, Matt could be disciplined, even expelled, if he went on a date with another man while a student. Dating, something taken for granted by heterosexual coeds, was entirely off-limits. In addition to the normal emotional stresses of college and the adjusting to life away from your family, Matt had to deal with the opacity and inequity of BYU policy regarding LGBTQ+ students and accepted behavior. He watched as at least one LGBTQ+ student took their own life each year of his undergraduate education. Yet, astonishingly given the intense and conflicting circumstances, he excelled. Matt worked as a research assistant—even presenting his findings with professors at political science conferences—and teaching assistant, while also finding time to serve as president of the Political Affairs Society—all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.

And when, at the end of his four years at BYU, he was selected as valedictorian (and selected to speak at graduation), he decided to share with everyone his sexual orientation in a faith-filled way—modeling the multiple paths of Christian discipleship (as Mary Oliver wrote, “I know several lives worth living”) and serving as an inspiration to LGBTQ+ BYU students—he even made sure to underline the part of the speech where he came out when he passed the speech off with college administrators. His message was, quite simply, that he was a proud gay son of God.

So, that is all to say, I don’t fully understand what Elder Holland found so enraging about Matt’s speech—but I do know that he effectively re-cast Matt as a prop in a great struggle within the Church as it tries to triangulate a positive direction in its approach to LGBTQ+ members. I also know that this two-dimensional prop resembles not at all the Matt Easton I knew and deeply respect. But, neither is the Elder Holland of this speech the same one I’ve come to love and admire.

Part of the discourse around this speech seems as if it’s reasonable to define a person by their least-charitable words. Beyond a patently un-Christian perspective, I fear this view makes a caricature of Elder Holland, ironically paralleling his own approach to Matt Easton.

A full understanding of this situation seems to require a few things, among them, a more Bayesian-like system of recalibrating our fundamental views of a person slowly—not writing them off as soon as they say something we find offensive. My own priors with Elder Holland would be that there was something around a 80% chance he would give a warm and welcoming speech, reflecting the best of Restoration tradition. Now, after updating my priors going forward, I would say there is a lower chance he gives those types of speeches at any given point—but surely still above 50%.

Another useful thing might be a deeper way of thinking about the concept of institutional compassion. Among many other wonderful things the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an organized religion. And maybe, like Churchill said about democracy, organized religion is the worst form of religion—except for all the others that have been tried. Change is slow, we may attend Church with people who somehow see the world in fundamentally opposing ways, and sometimes we may wonder about our leaders’ inspiration. But perhaps we should strive to see these frustrations not as bugs, but features, of a healthy community of believers.

And finally, a proper understanding of the role (and limits) of apostleship might be in order. In 1 Corinthians 4:9-10 the Apostle Paul explains his view on the role: “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ: we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised.” Unsatiated by Jesus’ atonement (especially in Eugene England’s analysis), we seem to need another Paschal Lamb at times. And though I believe the Church has a ways to go in fully accepting our gay brothers and sisters, I also believe that the errors are not simply fruits of our leaders’ mistakes—some of the fault lies with us, the lay members, as we refuse to take Jesus’ message of acceptance and love literally enough. But if these more caustically critical reactions are ways of forgiving ourselves and moving forward as a Church, perhaps such may be a productive exercise—as long as we don’t lose sight of our fallible leaders’ real and deep sacrifices and largely loving service.

Finally, while mulling over this controversy, I felt an inclination to return to first principles. As an exercise in this return, I decided, on a whim, to write a brief personal paraphrase of the Articles of Faith. In no way are these thoughts meant to replace canonical texts, but I found the exercise refreshing. As a conclusion of sorts for these thoughts I’ve printed this personal reformulation. At the very least it may provide the reader some amusement.

  1. Believe in God and Jesus, in a greater good, a higher meaning—a poetry of life.

  2. Believe that ‘we are the masters of our fate,’ the ‘captains of our ship.’

  3. Believe that all may be saved—that the heavens are much more expansive than we’ve ever imagined.

  4. Believe in sacred patterns to life—in covenants and promises that bring us together—and that life demands holy attention.

  5. Believe in a church of order (even a church without walls); that there is redemptive power within the collective body.

  6. Believe in a radical simplification of things. In the rough and uneven melody of early, and radical, Christian life.

  7. Believe in miracles—that extraordinary fiber that weaves in and out of our seemingly mundane lives.

  8. Believe in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—but also be at peace with higher criticism. Anxiously await the refracted truths of various time periods and circumstances that have unleashed the staggering wisdom of God in and through man. Believe in the Book of Mormon as evidence of God’s spontaneity.

  9. Hope in the future.

  10. Believe in, and yearn for, better societies.

  11. Believe in pluralism.

  12. Believe in peaceful, democratic coexistence.

  13. Desire to be good.