The BYU-Idaho campus in Rexburg, Idaho. Video screengrab

Why the BYU-Idaho debacle is a signal of positive change in Mormonism

(RNS) — On Monday (Nov. 25), Brigham Young University-Idaho made the welcome announcement that it has reversed its controversial decision to disallow Medicaid as an acceptable form of health insurance for its students.

The reversal will return the university to the previous status quo, in which Medicaid was considered an acceptable form of insurance to satisfy the university’s requirement that all students have health insurance, but was not accepted as a form of payment at the university’s own health center.

I’m not surprised by the reversal. The proposed anti-Medicaid policy was ridiculous and untenable, not to mention abruptly implemented and poorly handled. The additional specter of the university’s administration allegedly attempting to silence student journalists who were investigating the policy’s negative ramifications is sobering.

But two other things do surprise me, and point to positive change. Here is the university’s announcement from yesterday:

“The well-being of our students and their families is very important to us. We are grateful for the feedback we have received from our campus community and for the input of the local medical community. We apologize for the turmoil caused by our earlier decision.”

First, they are apologizing. They acknowledge that they created turmoil. If this seems fundamental and basic, compare it to the church’s modus operandi with the November 2015 LGBT exclusion policy. The four-year sequence of that PR disaster has been:

  • Release information supposedly restricted to male local church leaders only and watch it go viral.
  • Publicly defend the policy in a damage-control interview with a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in which he claims that it reflects Jesus’ particular love for children.
  • Quietly amend the policy a week later, drastically reducing its scope and the number of families that will be damaged by it.
  • Two months later, have another member of the Quorum of the Twelve effectively upgrade the Handbook policy to the status of revelation and claim that the hand of the Lord was directing the church to bar some children from baptism.
  • Have that same church leader, now the institution’s president, announce in 2019 that the church would be reversing the exclusion policy he had upheld in 2016 as divine revelation. Be clear-but-also-not-clear that this decision was also the result of revelation.
  • Fail to actually reverse the policy in the written LDS Handbook, so that what is still “on the books” as of November 2019 is the exclusion policy.

Revelation, to be sure, is a complex and dialogical process; there’s nothing mutually exclusive about a Mormon prophet receiving revelation that apparently contradicts earlier revelation. That is precisely the point of continuing revelation — to adapt the gospel to changing circumstances as God’s people come to different understandings. (See this interview with biblical scholar Pete Enns for an example of how the Bible itself models this.)

Nor am I saying the 2015 exclusion policy was truly revelation from the Lord, which I do not believe. Rather, I'm saying it is possible – indeed, imperative — for human understandings of the Lord’s will to evolve and grow over time.

In any case, one thing is clear from the exclusion policy timeline: At no time did the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acknowledge the trauma it had caused or apologize for it. Instead, it doubled down repeatedly, until quite suddenly when it did not.

It’s good to see BYU-Idaho going in a different direction.

Another hopeful sign coming out of the BYU-Idaho fiasco is that it explicitly acknowledged that it had responded to the critical feedback it had received from students and from the medical community. The institution listened, and the institution learned. It even expressed gratitude for this critical feedback.

Sounds basic, right?

Let’s contrast that to the way the LDS Church has handled incremental change over gender issues. I’ve been both happy and frustrated with the church's slow movement toward giving women greater responsibilities and visibility in the church, from letting women pray in General Conference to adapting the temple ceremony to limit male mediation between women and God.

Mormon girls now have equal activity budgets to boys; Heavenly Parents are mentioned in the Young Women theme; female missionaries are permitted to wear pants; women can serve as witnesses to temple ordinances. And there have been so many other steps forward.

These are excellent changes. They were all of them, every single one, suggested repeatedly by women writers and activists before they were finally implemented by the church.

And all of them changed without reference to any of that dialogic interaction. Mormon feminists have been like the persistent widow knocking, knocking, knocking on the door of the judge in Luke 18. They have received no acknowledgment from the church except that eventually, many of their ideas have been adopted as policy, and even claimed as holy revelation.

“We are grateful for the feedback we have received” could be a fine corrective to that history going forward.

READ: Student reporters at BYU-Idaho allegedly pressured not to publish negative stories