Bushy haired, scruffy and wild-eyed, a punk-rock singer bellows out the words to an irksome tune. Blaring throughout the campus, the singer’s lyrics laud the virtues of environmentalism. Students stop to enjoy the music and many even dance, punk-style, in front of the singer’s stage. The event could easily have taken place at UCLA or the University of Florida, but believe it or not, it took place at Brigham Young University (BYU). “Yeah, we can get a little wild here,” a passing student admits. “But who ever said you can’t be loud and still be a Mormon?”
With over 30,000 students, BYU in Provo, Utah is the largest privately owned university in the United States. Acknowledged for its academic excellence, entering freshman boast an average GPA of 3.8 and an ACT score of 27.
But unlike other large university campuses, BYU is a straight-laced Mormon school that actively frowns on drinking, smoking, sexual promiscuity, sleeveless shirts and shorts that are not knee length. But you won’t hear the students at this campus complain.
“If someone doesn’t like the rules here, they just won’t come,” says Brandon Eill, a junior at BYU majoring in statistics. “We have something called the Honor Code and if you sign it, BYU trusts you’re going to keep your word.”
According to Robert Millet, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, the Honor Code is a commitment by students to live a life style that is moral, virtuous and consistent with Church teachings, which means not to dress inappropriately, smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, consume tea, coffee or use drugs. School officials say that if students violate the Honor Code even off campus, they can be placed on probation and if they continue, dismissed.
Much of the Mormon prohibition against alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea comes from “the Word of Wisdom,” a health code for Mormons that Joseph Smith introduced as a revelation from God in 1833. Mormons believe that coffee and tea, which often contain caffeine and other toxins, are not healthy and shorten life. And a 1997 medical survey supports their claim. The 14-year-study found that Mormons who followed the Church’s health code had one of the nation’s lowest mortality rates from heart disease and cancer.
Held as a badge of honor, Millet says, every year the Princeton Review votes BYU the “Stone-Cold Sober School of the Year.”
And for those who wonder what else is there to do if you can’t drink at a BYU party? “Maybe talk and get to know someone” says Eill. He claims that even though they don’t drink or do drugs at BYU parties, everyone has a great time. “What’s so fun about throwing up all over yourself or doing something you might regret the next morning?” Eill asks.
Millet says there is more religious commitment among young Mormons today than when he attended BYU in the late ‘60s. When he was young, attendance at Church services, nationwide, was about 15%, but today— thanks to the commitment and enthusiasm of young people—it’s 40%- 50%.
Kase Wells, a sophomore engineering major, likes how open everyone is at BYU to discuss religion. “Whether it be a conversation with someone in your dorm or in the cafeteria or in class, nobody is shy about discussing their faith here,” says Wells.
Wells says even in an engineering class that studies the chemical composition of materials, the professor could relate it back to God’s ability to create. Wells adds that many of his professors start class off with a prayer, including in his calculus class.
The impetus for combining spirituality and academics comes from Brigham Young, early Church leader who settled the Mormons in Utah. When Young laid the foundation for the University in the late 1800s, he gave orders that the school must not teach anything—not even the multiplication tables—without the Spirit of God.
The DC Connection
Sarah Crane, a journalism major at BYU, says she experienced how different BYU students were when she recently attended a college press event in Washington, DC and saw students from other colleges attend meetings in their pajamas and disappear into their hotel rooms with cases of beer. Crane says she called her mom and told her that she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
Crane believes that a lot of the social problems that young people have today—such as drinking or premarital sex—revolve around low-self esteem. Crane says having a religious identity helps with that. “My Mormon faith fosters an understanding about what really matters,” she says, “and how you can create a life for yourself that you can look back on and be proud of, and not regret the decisions you made.”
Not all Cookie-Perfect
Despite the pressure to conform, not all young Mormons practice the same moral code. Glen Mitchell, a 25-year-old in Salt Lake City who completed two years of Church missionary work in California, admits he drinks occasionally to get a little buzzed. Mitchell, who regularly attends church and asked that his real name not be used, says that drinking in moderation is okay. “Honestly, if the worst thing I do is drink a beer or have a cocktail, I’m okay with that.”
Mitchell claims that Mormons are not all cookie-cutter perfect and that— even though a lot of church-attending Mormons bend the rules and have a drink or enjoy a smoke now and then—that doesn’t mean they’re not good Mormons. “A Catholic who skips Church now and then or has an impure thought, doesn’t give up being a Catholic,” he points out. “If that was the case, who would fill the pews on Sunday?”
[Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo®—which is sponsored by a Catholic organization—addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences. -Editor]