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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dick Cheney, safe in the arms of the Mormons?

I can't begin to describe my disappointment in learning that Dick Cheney will be the commencement speaker at BYU, the Mormon Church's university in Provo, Utah, where almost everyone in my family earned their college degrees. (I grew up in Orem and spent my freshman year there in 1989-90, but transferred to and graduated from the University of Utah.) I can't say I'm surprised — after all, Utah Mormons decided only within the last few months that the war in Iraq isn't going in an entirely desirable direction under the eminently competent and principled leadership of President Bush — but the school really should have turned down this "opportunity."

For one thing, what a disastrous bit of public relations for an increasingly global church to honor the chief architect of American torture, preventive war, and aggressive military nationalism. (I sure hope Cheney's caravan will pass at least a few "Mormons Against Torture" banners while he's in the reddest of states. Dad, you up for it?) For another, why line yourself up with the least popular and most polarizing figure in American life, especially when, frankly, he hasn't lifted a finger for any of the things you seem to really care about? (Some Mormons think Cheney shouldn't have been invited because he hasn't shown much enthusiasm for amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage. He's not conservative enough for some people. But torture, fabricating intelligence, ignoring the separation of powers, yeah, that's okay.)

Happily, some students and faculty are protesting the invitation. One professor told the Salt Lake Tribune: "If BYU seeks to bring a model of abuse of power, greed and political extremism, which seeks to decimate citizens' rights guaranteed by our laws, then Cheney is a perfect choice. But if, on the other hand, the university hopes to offer a model to graduates of love and service to humanity, then better candidates are available." Amen!

Quick: Will seeing Cheney all cozy with the Church's leadership help or hurt Mitt Romney's presidential run?

("Cheney speech at BYU causes outcry," Nathan Johnson, Daily Herald 3.27.07; "Chilly for Cheney at BYU?" Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune 3.28.07; "BYU OKs Cheney protest," Rosalie Westenskow, Deseret News 3.29.07; LDS blog reaction: Times and Seasons, By Common Consent)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 28 March 2007 at 10:33 PM

Previous: This week at Power to the churches.
Next: Harvard's 'New Humanism' conference, April 20-22.





March 29, 2007 12:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

I don't think that welcoming Cheney is "a disastrous bit of public relations" for the Mormons. I mean, anybody expects that Mormons would disagree with the most staunchly conservative and aggresive government in the democratic world? It is simply consistent with who they are and what they stand for.

I mean, seriously, nobody, at least in Europe, will feel even slightly disappointed or surprised, and their chances in proselytizing will not be diminished in the least.


March 30, 2007 08:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

I personally welcome the critical analysis that has come - and will continue to come - regarding the political environment in this country, from the students and faculty of BYU, and possibly some members of the Utah Mormon community in general.

"The invitation to the vice president of the United States is not a violation of [the Church's political neutrality policy], any more than inviting the majority leader of the Senate would be. In fact, Senator Harry Reid — a Democrat from the opposite political pole to the vice president — has already accepted such an invitation for this fall. That invitation has been in process for many months — long before the announcement of the vice president’s visit.

Is it appropriate for a university — even one that espouses a policy of political neutrality — to have as featured speakers the holders of some of the highest offices in the land? Of course it is. And whoever the visitor — the vice president, the majority leader of the Senate or the chief justice of the Supreme Court (another scheduled fall speaker) — the university and the student body will listen, evaluate and react to them as intelligent citizens capable of making up their own minds about their messages."

While I would like to see critical analysis regarding matters of faith and doctrine take place within the Church's Sunday services and institute classes, I realize that the Church has the primary responsibility of carrying out its charter and role as a church. This means, to me, that the Church should focus its efforts on teaching its doctrines and facilitating its worship - and not focus on catering to people like me that wouldn't mind bringing in a speaker or topic from a controversial and opposing doctrine or belief system. It would be counter its charter.

Brigham Young University, on the other hand, has the primary responsibility of being exactly what it is - namely an institution of higher-learning. Controversy, debate, critical thinking and protest all belong within a university. I feel that if people close their minds to hearing what the other side might have to say - by silencing them or by putting them aside - then they are living within their own prejudices and biases with no real interest other than their own determination.

I think BYU having high-ranking officials as guest speakers is a good thing. I'm glad both red and blue are represented at BYU this year. I can only hope that people will open their minds for expansion when both speakers have their turn. I also hope that we as a nation can learn to respect the public offices. Notably, this is a hard thing for me each time someone that holds the public office that has the car with the blue and red flashing lights is sitting behind me writing up a citation - but I do try to respect the public office even if I disagree with the execution or person holding it.

I admit to being considerably younger than Chris and submit to anyone reading this that my comments may reflect my young but evolving awareness in this big world.


April 1, 2007 05:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

My brother-in-law JD quotes the LDS Church's official response to criticism of its invitation of Dick Cheney to speak at BYU's April commencement ceremony. A handful of thoughts in reply:

First, thanks for commenting! Second, slow down! (And, whatever you do, do not get pulled over for speeding by a New York state trooper. I'll explain when I see you next time.)

As for Cheney at BYU, JD writes: "I also hope that we as a nation can learn to respect the public offices." I think Americans do respect public office — but they are embarrassed and angry when the people who hold those offices don't respect the citizens or the law.

That's what makes Cheney so singularly awful, which is why he has the lowest public approval ratings of any vice-president in U.S. history. Cheney thinks that the Constitution allows a president to do anything he wants because we're "at war." He openly defends the use of torture, supports the establishment of secret CIA prisons, encourages the kidnapping of citizens from other countries and then "rendering" them to third countries with abysmal human rights records for "interrogation" (i.e., torture). He thinks the U.S. doesn't have to abide by human rights treaties we have signed. He is openly scornful of the press and almost never speaks to the general public. He runs his own intelligence operation. Oddly, his staff isn't listed in government staff directories. He's the most powerful and least accountable person in the U.S. government. He treats people who disagree with him as disloyal to America. He has done nothing during his time in office to reach across any partisan or ideological divide. These are only a few of the reasons he's so incredibly divisive and unpopular.

I would never argue that a school shouldn't invite a public official to speak. I absolutely agree that a university should encourage serious debate about important matters — but that's not what a commencement speech is primarily for. (I had to endure a truly boring commencement address at my graduation from the University of Utah by a Mormon Church leader who spoke about the importance of "moral education," a talk I remember as intellectually dull and ceremonially patronizing.) But when one of the most conservative schools in one of the most conservative counties in the country — a school that doesn't exactly leap to mind as a center of lively debate or intellectual diversity — invites the most divisively conservative public official to address its graduating students, that's not encouraging a stimulating exchange of ideas; it's pandering to the base.

I am not shocked. It's just depressing. For an international church that already struggles to combat its (well-deserved) image as a right-wing American church, getting cozy with the leading warmonger in the U.S. doesn't help. But if his appearance at BYU helps Mormons who support human rights and the rule of law speak up, great!


April 2, 2007 10:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

You would think - or hope - that all Mormons, and members of any Abrahamic-based religion, would support human rights and the rule of law.

I'd like to think that Mormons do support human rights etc, but I also wonder if the bi-partisan nature (or evolution) of our politics aids in "blinding" people that are focused on a particular few aspects of their supporting party, from the other aspects of the party which they may not only dislike, but detest. Perhaps it is ignorance, but it looks like the tides are changing. While the leaders represent the party, they also represent the nation - and us individually - and over the years Americans are becoming more and more dissatisfied by the people up the top.

I, for one, have many disagreements for some things that have been done, or legislated, in the name of fighting terror and homeland security. Do I want to have my cake and eat it too? Perhaps I do.

As the United States falls behind China as the world leader, and as the earth's environment itself falls prey to our human consumption and contamination - it's quite possible that none of this will matter, anyway.

To me, the crux of western societies is the focus on the individual; it allows for the freedom to pursue and develop ones own identity and ambitions, but seemingly at the ultimate cost of the society itself. Can we learn from history? Can we learn from those displaced but still existing traditional societies?

In "can we learn," I truly think that we can learn, but only if we collectively ponder and execute, "can I learn?"

I've enjoyed this discussion and the thought that your comments have triggered in my own minds eye. I agree with you that the commencement speech is not for encouraging debate. In addition, the commencement speech will probably go unremembered in the minds of the students anyway. I have never really cared for those kinds of ceremonies - and all but one speaker of any that I've been to were boring, and to this day, I don't remember what the guy I liked said anyway.

And Chris - I am trying to slow down... but I seem to keep falling victim to my own stupidity!

DL Walton:

April 2, 2007 08:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

I actually laughed when I heard VP Cheney was coming to speak at BYU commencement. It is a situation which is very disappointing to myself and many other active members of the LDS church.

Not being in the decision making process, I cannot speak for how the invitation went out or who did the accepting for whom. The media reports here that the White House solicited an opportunity. That gives it an interesting spin?

Since this type speaker is scheduled far in advance, or so I believe, some of the issues surrounding the visit are now more apparent than when the VP was invited. I am pleased that the issues are "hot" enough to see debate arise around it. This does open conversations which formerly were not being held.

I am glad to see that the Y will have Senator Reed and others on the podium during the coming year. My feeling is that the VP should have been offered the same voluntary audience.

I agree that VP Cheney seems to stand for actions which I feel are illegal and immoral. However, I do not think that his speaking at BYU makes "Mormons" as a group guilty by association, nor that broad generalities are called for.

From my point of view, this misfortune may actually help open this conservative state to a broader set of ideas. (BTW, I find no difficulty discussing my more moderate ideas with my more conservative neighbors. I find most listen to my point of view, and we often find areas of compatability. Most often, we disagree about how things should be accomplished.)


April 2, 2007 09:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

My dad, a faithful Mormon and superb Democrat in Utah County, raises two important points: First, Cheney probably hoped to speak in the least hostile of all possible settings — but, just as President Bush miscalculated the reception he'd get at Calvin College in 2005, Cheney may find that even Utah is souring on him. But the more important point is the second one: Utahns, and Mormons in particular, are discovering their own disagreements on a matter of extraordinary public importance. Hooray!

On a minor point, everything I've read suggests that the White House had asked if Cheney could speak after turning down an invitation from BYU to have President Bush speak last year.

As for my headline, I think it's the White House's perception — still largely accurate — that Mormons are part of the president's base of support. Cheney picked BYU because it was safe. I put the question mark up there because Mormon support is waning. That said, Cheney is going to find a much warmer reception in Provo than practically anyone who isn't Bono would find at Harvard.

(Longtime readers will note that this thread is turning into the first-ever family discussion here on Philocrites.)


April 2, 2007 09:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ooh, Dad, one final question: How is the Cheney story playing with KSL's Doug Wright?

P.S. No one has taken up the question of what effect, if any, Cheney's appearance at BYU might have on Romney's presidential chances. Maybe it will boost Romney's war-on-terror toughness quotient, especially if he shows up and gets a photo with the VP. Otherwise this won't be a story — unless Cheney gets booed and Fox News berates the Cougars for it.


April 2, 2007 11:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Regarding your P.S.:

I don't think it matters - the effect on Romney's presidential chances - as the real question is whether or not America will put its first African-American, or its first woman, in office.

brian lee:

April 3, 2007 11:00 AM | Permalink for this comment

Isnt it amazing that the most so called Christian states who claim to be followers of the prince of peace almost always support the parties proposing wars.
Do these so called christians see the hipocracy of claiming the Christian faith yet voting for war supporting politicians .
Brian Lee


April 3, 2007 05:46 PM | Permalink for this comment

Um, okay, Brian, settle down. For something more substantive on the complexities of how Christians try to make sense of the use of force, click here; my commentary is here.


April 5, 2007 07:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

300 BYU students gathered on campus yesterday to protest Dick Cheney's upcoming commencement speech; 75 attended a pro-Cheney rally on the other side of the library. It was the first on-campus student protest since a 1990 demonstration opposing the first Gulf War. ("Demonstrators duel politely at BYU," Sheena McFarland, Salt Lake Tribune 4.5.07; "Y. rally quite tame: Demos object to Cheney speech; other students protest the protest," Tad Walch, Deseret Morning News 4.5.07)


April 11, 2007 10:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

Cheney's omnipotence:

David Lassen, 23, the chairman of the B.Y.U. College Republicans, said he hoped to present the vice president with petitions of support for his appearance on campus, signed by about 2,000 students and alumni.

“We’re excited for the world to see what B.Y.U. really is,” Mr. Lassen said. “No matter what you think of Cheney, he’s easily the most powerful man in the world.”

("Rare protests at Brigham Young over a planned Cheney appearance," Martin Stolz, New York Times 4.11.07, reg req'd)

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