27 October 2007

My letter to the Duke Presidential Review Committee

Duke University is conducting a regular periodic review of University President Richard H. Brodhead. As most of you will be aware, President Brodhead has had some pretty tough crises to deal with already in his first 3-4 years in office. The following is the text of a letter that I sent to the Presidential Review Committee:

Dear Mr. Blue and Members of the Presidential Review Committee:

As both an alumnus (Trinity '05) and current student (Law '08) of Duke University, I take very seriously this opportunity to submit my thoughts on the leadership of President Richard Brodhead over the last three years.

I remember the great excitement that permeated this campus when President Brodhead's appointment to the presidency was announced in late 2003. I remember very little, if any, doubt or skepticism about his potential efficacy as President of this University. I believe that the members of the Duke community, including myself, believed that the future of this institution was in capable and talented hands. From what President Brodhead has been able to achieve during his three-year tenure at Duke, it appears that our hopes were confirmed. President Brodhead has provided crucial leadership in such projects as increasing financial aid and opportunities for Duke students, elevating the status and presence of the arts on campus, and emphasizing service and global health as part of Duke's core mission. As an alumnus and one who dearly loves Duke, it has been my honor to be associated with an effective leader with the vision of President Brodhead. From a personal encounter with him in his office, I know that President Brodhead takes the obligations and duties of his office very seriously, as well as its limitations and his position as a figurehead and spokesman for the university.

Of course, the issue which I imagine will most concern this Committee is President Brodhead's acts or omissions during the recent lacrosse incident and its aftermath. Having been a close observer of these events since the time when the alleged rape was only a rumor, I stand behind the decisions that President Brodhead took at that time. Having known members of the lacrosse team during my years on campus, my own opinion at the time was that the events could have easily occurred as the accuser described them, especially considering the presence of alcohol. I believe that I was not alone in my assessment of the case. The decisions that President Brodhead made were not out of any desire to harm the players or because he and the faculty of the University harbor some secret agenda to destroy athletics. One of a University President's most important duties, aside from protecting individual students, is to protect the reputation and integrity of Duke as a place of learning and honor. I believe that the decisions he took were calculated to do exactly that. Whatever ridicule and criticism Duke may have faced in those months, I believe it would have been far worse for Duke to be known as a safe haven for hooligans, or worse, criminals and rapists, and a place where privileged whites and athletes acted with complete impunity. That being said, I believe that Duke has emerged from the recent crisis in as good a condition as could be expected. No lasting damage has been done to the prestige of the University or the education that it offers. If I am not mistaken in my facts, there has been no perceived drop in alumni giving or applications for admission.

Furthermore, President Brodhead has recently issued an apology where he acknowledged that he made certain mistakes in his handling of the crisis and showed public remorse for how those events might have harmed the accused players, their teammates, friends, and family. I believe that President Brodhead's apology was sincere and I hope that it will ultimately lay to rest the animosity that has surrounded these events on all sides.

After all that has occurred, I retain my confidence in President Brodhead. I firmly believe that he is the right person to guide Duke in the coming years. I feel fortunate and proud to be an alumnus of this University and I will continue to support President Brodhead and Duke as we move forward.

Thank you,

Trinity '05, Law '08

25 October 2007

The Vatican vs. Temple Square

(no "great and abominable" or "great and spacious" jokes, I promise)

As I mentioned a couple of posts down, my wife and I have just returned from a week-long trip to Rome. Obviously, one of the essential stops for any tourist in Rome must be the Vatican. We were no different.

Being a Mormon visiting the Vatican, you cannot help but reflect on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Both are the physical and hierarchical centers of their respective faiths, and high-volume tourist spots to boot.

Here are some of my impressions about how they compare.

Temple Square is clearly meant to impress. From the sister missionaries in every conceivable language, to the visitor's centers, the carefully manicured landscaping, and everything around it, a guest's visit to Temple Square is a highly-managed experience (or at least we want it to be so). Temple Square is beautiful, magically, at almost any time of year. For many of us, it is chiefly significant because of memories we have of it (first visits, weddings, etc.) and images that we see during General Conference. While one is aware that President Hinckley and other General Authorities occupy the huge office tower on Temple Square, your chances of bumping into them, or making an appointment to see them are slim to none. If Temple Square is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because this is pretty and it makes you feel good.

The Vatican is also impressive, but more than this, it is overwhelming. This is the rhetoric and symbology of power, writ large. Everything is on a huge scale at the Vatican- the churches, the columns, the statues, etc. The sheer amount of art housed in St. Peter's and in the Vatican Museums is almost absurd. The art is beautiful, and the result of centuries of men's attempts to put God's (and the Church's) glory into some kind of visual representation. It is enough to make one feel small beside it (most likely an intentional effect). Famous pieces of art, like Rodin's Thinker (the original), are shoved off into some obscure corner where you would never notice unless you proceeded through very deliberately. Without the aid of sister missionaries (I don't think the Swiss Guard counts), most people will see the Vatican without the aid of a tour guide. Instead, you are left to yourself in awe of the riches and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The experience is almost tiring. If the Vatican is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because nothing this rich and powerful could not be.

Temple Square, while beautiful, is anything but overwhelming. I remember on my first visit there, how disappointed I was in the size of the SLC Temple. I guess it always just looked bigger on TV. The Conference Center, while much larger, is far too functional to serve as a great example. Even the Church Office Building, while large, is only comparatively large with other huge skyscrapers in downtown SLC (like the Wells Fargo Building). And it is hardly an architectural masterpiece. On the other hand, St. Peter's is, by statute, the largest and tallest building in all of Rome. The visitor's centers and Church Museum house no art by anyone instantly recognizable as being from one of the great masters, like the Vatican's Rafael and Michelangelo.

For my part, I choose the beauty and simplicity of Temple Square. It avoids the oppressive and overbearing nature of the Vatican, as well as the unfortunate times when Catholic art and architecture slips into the realm of the gaudy. While the Vatican is all stone and cold, Temple Square exudes a much more human warmth.

Shameless plug

A good friend of mine (and wife of one of my best friends) just had an article published in Sunstone. The TOC is here. Her article is the 12th one from the top, starting at page 24. As usual, the Sunstone folks are stingy with their online access, so you'll have to pick up a paper copy or borrow one from a friend. I have not read it yet (no subscription), but I am sure it is worth a look.

20 October 2007

Change of heart

Mitt just won a major Christian conservative straw poll. See the story here.

Out of all this, I think the most interesting thing is the following couple of sentences:

A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows that Americans' attitudes toward Mormonism appear to be changing.

Half of those surveyed last weekend considered Mormons Christian, up from 34 percent last year.

Now, I am someone who is typically skeptical of poll results. After all, I don't believe that CNN and their polling partner went out and found the exact same people who were polled last year and an additional 17% of them had warmed up to Mormons. But the Church is obviously making a serious public relations push coinciding with the Romney candidacy. The new press section of the LDS.org home page is one example. Another I noticed is that one session of this last conference (Saturday afternoon?) had 3-4 talks that were at least impliedly public relations-driven (Ballard, Holland, Nelson, Wirthlin). So this makes me wonder- is all the effort bearing fruit? After 150 years of being treated as a bunch of heretics, did acceptance of Mormonism as a Christian denomination suddenly jump 17% in one year? Like I said, on matters of polling, I remain a skeptic. But any poll that registers 50% of non-Mormon Americans accepting Mormons as Christians is significant in my mind.

18 October 2007

My take on Sis. Beck's GC talk

I just got a chance to see Sister Beck's now infamous talk at General Conference a week and a half ago.
Let's get a couple of preliminary things out of the way first.

1. I really appreciate that she did not use the "Relief Society voice." (TM- the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

2. As my wife pointed out to me, if women felt like Sis. Beck was being hard on them, there was some justice in this. The men get at least two meetings a year where we get told what a bunch of lazy, porn-addicted louts we are. The women can get a stern talking to now and again as well. You'll be fine.

3. It is somewhat insensitive to speak just to the mothers. This is one of the broadest and biggest dilemmas in the Church today- how to teach the eternal principles of the Gospel when facing a room full of people for whom some portions of the counsel may not be presently applicable. If Sis. Beck failed to speak to single women, married women without children, etc., this fault is definitely not unique to her. The same unfortunate mistake is carried out by plenty of teachers and speakers in Church settings each week.

Now to the meat:

It all comes down to a matter of identity. As for myself, I am a husband (though not a father). However, I am also: a RM, law student, avid reader, blogger, video gamer, sports fan, etc. While I am all of these things, none of them (nor the sum total of them) is ME. Sometimes, husband is the role that best defines me and is dominant. However, at other times, the role of husband is subsumed beneath other roles, though it never completely disappears. As my wife knows all too well, I jealously guard a piece of me and a time for my own independence. I reserve my own right to, and respect the desire of other married people to do so as well.

Even if it was unspoken, I believe that what offended so many sisters in the Church (and some brothers on sisters' behalf) was that Sister Beck seemed to be reducing their entire identity into a single role: mother. Many of our sisters may be like me- jealously guarding a part of themselves that is neither mother nor wife (or at least not wholly so). Though she did not say it, it could have been perceived from Sister Beck's comments that we (your family/children/the Church) don't have time for your to be anything but a mother right now. For women who are maintaining a piece of themselves apart or for whom the role of mother or wife is not the one of which they are most fond, among the other roles that they embrace, such a remark could be deeply troubling or hurtful.

Another point of her talk that has been addressed is the admonition of LDS women to be the "best" homemakers. It is nice to aspire to be the best anything, but the rhetoric in such a setting is misplaced. The emphasis ought rather to be on being "better" than our past selves, to being a better homemaker, mother, father, etc. than I was when I first have kids, got married, etc. We can be our "best" selves but trying to be "better" than non-LDS people in the homemaking category (and in a number of different fields) seems stupid and petty.

15 October 2007

Harry Reid's speech at BYU

See here for a summary.

I know that Harry Reid is vilified in certain Church circles as something of a "traitor" or a "bad example" for members of the Church. Let me come right out and say that I think such a criticism is wholly unjustified. Most of these people don't know Harry Reid or what is in his heart or how he lives the Gospel in his daily life. All reports I have heard give me no reason to doubt his sincerity or his worthiness. Perhaps acknowledging my own ideological and political biases, I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt. I imagine that most members of the Church who attack him simply take issue with his politics, and would do so regardless of whether he was a member of the Church or not, and don't have any objection to his personal life or Church service.

One part of his speech (there were a couple) that made my ears prick up was when he said that certain "right-wing" members of the Church, like Ezra Taft Benson, had lead Church members down the wrong path. WHOA! Thems is fightin' words. It appears that Sen. Reid is calling out a (dead) Prophet and President of the Church, which action typically receives little patience and forgiving from Church members. Moreover, he did this standing on BYU campus, at the University's own invitation, which takes..well...balls.

[NOTE: at least one version of the speech included a reference to Ernest Wilkinson in this same statement, as one of the right-wingers that had lead Church members astray. I find this completely uncontroversial and I would hope that anyone who took an objective look at Wilkinson's actions when he was President of BYU (see the Prince book on David O. McKay for details) could agree that, on occasion, he could act a little unhinged and with an excess of zeal for conservative/Republican politics.]

So the big question is: can I still support Harry Reid after this? I think so. One doesn't have to be on one's way out of the Church to believe that not everything that a prophet does or says while he is the prophet (or in ETB's case, before he was President, but during his Apostleship) is prophetic or sanctioned by the Lord. Joseph Smith himself said that a prophet was not always a prophet, but only when acting as such. ETB, or any other Church leader, could have used their platform and position to influence members regarding political issues that are not properly part of the Gospel or in a way that would contradict Gospel principles. This could be unconscious (ex. "Look! President Benson is a Republican, and that means we all should be too.") or it could be conscious and deliberate. I don't think that this suggests anything manipulative, mendacious, or nefarious about President Benson. He could have sincerely believed that what he was, what he said, and what he did politically were in the best interests of the Church and its members. And he could have been wrong in that assessment. On that note, Harry Reid could be equally wrong in his assessment.

Like Harry Reid, and as I shared with the ex-BYU Democrats President who took so much flak for protesting President Cheney's Commencement speech this past spring, I am liberal because I am Mormon, and not in spite of it. I think that scriptural principles of love, generosity, tolerance, and mercy support traditional Democratic social and economic policies.

[SECOND NOTE: Some people are prone to read Sen. Reid's visit as somehow restoring the political balance at BYU after VP Cheney's visit back in the spring. I think that is completely bogus. Sen. Reid is a member of the Church, and the highest-ranking Mormon in American political history. Inasmuch as he is active and has not spoken out against the Church and would not embarrass the Church in a speech, I believe he is almost entitled to an invitation to speak at BYU. Or in any case, they would be stupid to not invite him at some point. VP Cheney is not entitled to such a presumption.]

I'm Back!

The wife and I greatly enjoyed our vacation to Rome. I won't bore anyone with a travelogue (aren't we specifically counseled NOT to give travelogues for missionary homecoming meetings?), but I think that some of my experiences in Rome might come out in future posts. Being in Europe and the center of the universe for the Roman Catholic Church made me reflect a little and I have a couple of things to say about that, hopefully later this week. Because we were traveling the past two weekends, I have only watched one full session of Conference, so I won't be able to weigh in on that for a little while. All in all, its good to be back, even if I had to jump right back into school.

04 October 2007

Week-long hiatus

I know I have not been back that long, but this one cannot be avoided. On Saturday, my wife and I are taking off to Rome for Fall Break. I won't be back until the 13th so unfortunately, I will miss all the cool blogging about Conference and the new choice of Apostle and Counselor in the First Presidency. I would like to think that we will get the chance to use the computer there in Rome and if so, I'll try to give some travel updates. If not, see you around the 14th or 15th.

That Mormon guy on House

(OK, so yesterday I said I was taken a break from blogging about Mormon stuff, but this just came up and I can't resist)

For those who aren't "savvy", House is a Fox TV show about a really cranky, sarcastic, drug-addicted, but brilliant doctor. One of Dr. House's chief characteristics is that he is an (militant?) atheist and seeks at any opportunity to discredit any of his patients' or colleagues' notions about God, the afterlife, or the supernatural.

So it was very interesting when it was announced that one of his new assistants on the show would be Mormon. The show introducing this character aired on Tuesday. Interestingly enough, the Mormon guy is black, so there go the stereotypes. But it lead into the following initial joke:
House: So you a Mormon? I saw that Brigham Young ring on your hand. Or did your parents just clean the grounds?
OUCH! Right out of the gate, a subtle dig at Mormon history with African-Americans. The doctor responds with "The Church has a very progressive stance on racial equality." That's a questionable assertion; maybe presently true but not historically so. Also, when I think of the Church, the first things that spring to mind are not "progressive" and "racial equality."

There is another joke about the "magic underwear" that does not go much of anywhere, but the crux of this Mormon guy's involvement in the episode is also my most important point of this post. At one point, the doctor decides to do a liver function test by making a patient drink tequila and see how fast she gets drunk. For such an experiment, he needs a control group (someone with no tolerance for alcohol), so he picks the Mormon. I won't get into the back-and-forth, but the essence of the matter is that if this test is going to be conclusive and helpful in identifying the patient's ailment, the Mormon will have to drink. When the Mormon initially refuses, Dr. House asks, "Would you, or would you not, pull an ass out of a pit on the Sabbath?" A well-beloved scripture for every Mormon who ever went to college.

My real question is: if you had to break the Word of Wisdom in order to save another person's life, would you? I am not particularly thinking about a gun-to-the-head kind of scenario, but if in some alternate universe, partaking of alcohol or tobacco once would save the life of another human being, could you bring yourself to do it? If it was a loved one (wife, husband, mother, father, etc.), would that change your answer? My wife and I both agreed that we would partake. In my case, I like to think that it would make no difference if the person were a relative or someone particularly dear to me. In my own mind, the Word of Wisdom is NOT an eternal law. In the hierarchy of commandments, its actually pretty far down the list.

My only real complaint about the episode is that the guy is not convincingly Mormon. He says at one point "LDS does not try to control every aspect of our lives." LDS what? "LDS" doesn't do anything. The Church maybe, but LDS as a subject in this kind of statement. It just does not sound right and makes the whole thing sound less believable.

03 October 2007

Best. Quote. Ever.

I'm going to take a couple-post break from all of the heavy Mormon-related blogging. I know that my disappoint the core readership at this blog, but it will be short-lived I promise. But I am going to have a couple of posts devoted to my alma mater, Duke. It's my blog and I'll do what I want.

The following appeared in the October 2007 Towerview, the campus student-run magazine:

"Everyone's got a hard-on about Harvard, Yale and Princeton that stems from a time when the country was smaller and you only needed three schools to educate the bastards...[Duke] hasn't been around long enough to turn out finely tuned assholes. Young egoists, but not ego-maniacs."

- Dana Vachon, Duke '02, author in New York City

Vachon, who earlier calls the education at Duke "flagrantly mediocre" has, for better or worse, hit the nail on the head. While I love my university, I have never been bowled over by the level of education offered at the school or the intellectual passion of my classmates. I never attended one of the HYPS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford) schools, so I don't have much ground for comparison. However, I have consistently been surprised at how highly Duke is ranked. I understand that not all of the ranking is tied up in the quality of the undergraduate education, and it should not be. Universities are responsible for so much more than turning out 22-year olds with a better-than-high-school education.

Duke does not attract the hard-core intellectual and academic types. Based on my own perception, and not statistics, Duke undergrads do not generally go on to Ph.Ds in humanities and go on to lead other universities; they tend to go the pre-professional route and lead companies, law firms, and hospitals. Coming from my small-town background, I have wondered in the past if mine could have been that great "American Dream" story of going to HYPS. But you can't change history, and I remain very grateful that a school like Duke took a chance on a kid from a hick town in rural eastern NC.