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The BYU Professor Asking Mormons To Stand Up For The Marginalized

Photo of Eric Huntsman speaking.
Madeline Mortensen / BYU

For many practicing Mormons, the topic of LGBT inclusion can be a tricky one that's often tiptoed around. But in a speech to students last month, Brigham Young University religion professor Eric Huntsman dove headfirst into the issue.

"Not just for our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers but for many people, the choice to love can literally make the difference between life and death," Huntsman said during his August 8 address.

KUER's Lee Hale spoke with Huntsman about his widely shared message and why Mormon millennials give him hope.

Some questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Hale: Older Mormons worry about millennials, that they might not be as committed or they might have more questions and they're not comfortable with the typical explanations. Since these are your students, do you worry about them?

Huntsman: I see millennials as certainly a challenge but I also see a great opportunity. These are people who really care. They care about God, they care about their spiritual lives and then they care about other people. I think the impulse that this generation has to love people and reach out to people and include people. I think it is something that we can harness and use to make that Latter-day Saints tradition even more vibrant.

Hale: In Mormon pockets — whether that's a congregation or a group of friends — those groups can be more receptive and forgiving to comments that might be a little bit racist or a little bit homophobic than they might be to things that are seen as "too inclusive."

Huntsman: That's exactly why individuals need to speak up. You know, I've got a lot of straight white male priesthood privilege. It's pretty important that I speak up for a sister or speak up for a person of color or that I speak up for an LGBTQ person. Because Christ said to stand up. He said to be like him. When Jesus went to synagogue he often didn't say what everyone was expecting. So yes, it's a natural desire to fit in but we want to fit in with Jesus. I think it's important that we make sure that those who are in the corners know that they're loved.

There's a new group that's gotten on my radar since I gave that talk, and that's people who are negotiating faith transitions. Not necessarily people transitioning out of the church but people who, just because of the way they think or the questions they're asking, they're getting shut down. I believe that there are a lot of intellectuals who feel like they don't belong in the church. Talk about a resource that we can use, about people who belong.

Hale: Do you empathize and try to see from the perspective of those who are scared of being "too inclusive?"

Huntsman: I do because that was me 10 or 15 years ago. I'm a fifth generation Latter-day Saint, I went to BYU, I've served as a bishop, I sing with the Tabernacle Choir. I've got all the church cred I need and it's very comfortable. Sometimes we want to be reassured that we're right. I don't think we need to reassure each other so much that we're right. The Holy Ghost, according to our belief system, tells us what is true. But that's where I was. So I think there was a time 10 or 15 years ago before the spirit started softening my heart like this where I think I would have been on the other side and been uncomfortable as people advanced reaching out and loving.

Hale: Some say that you can't be a believer of Mormon doctrine and also be a true feminist or a true ally — that you can't hold those two things together. What do you think?

Huntsman: What I often tell my students when they raise these issues, and I know that they may not be coming from the same place I am but I'm just speaking as a faithful Latter-day Saint, I sustain the leaders of my church. So I leave the church policies and doctrines between the church's leaders and the Lord. But what I tell my students is incumbent upon every baptized member of this church is how we treat each other. And that's between us and the Lord.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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