Editor’s note: During Winter Semester 2020, journalism students examined several societal issues that directly impact the BYU community because “The world is our campus.” This story is part of a series called “The World Meets Our Campus.”
The political climate on the BYU campus is uplifting and educational, according to faculty and student observers, though this might be because BYU students largely tend to shy away from partisan political discourse.
However, an increasingly noisy national political landscape is encouraging some BYU students to be more vocal about their opinions.
Issues like gender, race and LGBT equality, and childcare and how they fit into the cultural environment and policies like the BYU Honor Code are becoming fair game, as some students start to question long-standing cultural norms.
Darren Hawkins, BYU political science professor and faculty advisor for the BYU Democrats Club, said the campus community avoids weighing in on most political matters, in his experience. Both administration and students, he said, play a role in this.
“Why are students at BYU less interested in protests than students at other universities? Why are students at BYU less interested in vocalizing publicly than students at other universities?” he said. “I find it to be generally true that there just isn’t much student interest in that kind of stuff.”
This lack of interest might come from Latter-day Saint culture, which Hawkins said encourages middle-of-the-road behavior and conformity as a group.
“Protests and demonstrations and public voicing often suggest that you aren’t going along with the crowd,” he said.
Likewise, BYU administration is careful not to show political preference, as BYU is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU recently changed the Democrats and Republicans organizations from social, BYUSA clubs to academic clubs, sponsored by the political science department. Hawkins said this is because administration is “cautious about the Church’s name and image.”
BYU student Kristen Johns worked for Spencer Cox’s gubernatorial campaign during the Winter 2020 semester. She also noticed a reluctance to participate from students.
She said the reluctance might also stem from students’ lack of interest in or exposure to local politics.
Hawkins explained that BYU administration also encourages academic discourse over political activism.
Political science professor Jeremy Pope said while he doesn’t see much political engagement from BYU students, he doubts they participate in politics any less than their peers at other universities, or anyone else.
Political science professor Lucy Williams disagreed, saying she has seen plenty of involvement from BYU students.
“Students from all sorts of disciplines organize demonstrations, attend debates, join political clubs, etc. I think our students are generally quite eager to be informed about and involved in the political process,” she said. “I think BYU students from both sides of the political spectrum are becoming more comfortable with vocalizing their political views.”
Where political discourse does exist on campus, Hawkins said he has found it informative and uplifting, as students are often more open to discussing new ideas than other demographics.
“I love students because they generally don’t have hardened identities yet,” he said. “Students are trying on political views. I wish that people would maintain that ‘trying on’ aspect throughout their lives.”
BYU Republicans president Hunter Thomas agreed that BYU students tend to behave civilly toward those with differing political views. “I don’t think there’s any beef between the Democrats and Republicans at BYU.”
He praised BYU students for their awareness, saying he feels most are relatively well-informed. He especially encouraged students to learn about issues relevant to their major and future careers.
Thomas feels that the biggest issue BYU students face in politics is media literacy. According to his observations, many students get all their news from only one source.
“We’re at a university, which I think is always going to be not as conservative as one may think,” Thomas said. “BYU Democrats are pretty progressive for being on a campus that’s LDS.”
BYU has been ranked among the top conservative universities on websites such as niche.com and thebestschools.org, in part because of the school’s Honor Code, which requires students to adhere to Latter-day Saint standards of conduct.
Hawkins agreed with Thomas, however, that the campus political landscape is more diverse than such rankings make it out to be.
Though BYU might lean conservative when compared to other universities, Hawkins said, the BYU community is more liberal than the rest of the Utah population or the Latter-day Saint community in general.
Pope agreed, saying BYU students’ ages might account for some of the differences between these demographic ideologies.
“One thing that we know about younger people is they tend to be more likely to be Democrats — they tend to be more likely to be somewhat liberal in their views. I’m sure that’s true of BYU students relative to older groups of Latter-day Saints,” he said.
He also said college years are the years in which many people switch political ideologies.
“I also think that young people are sort of figuring out what these things mean,” he said. “I encounter a lot of students that might have come to BYU thinking, ‘Well, I’m a conservative,’ but then discover over the course of time that they don’t feel that way about a number of political issues. And then sometimes, the reverse.”
Hawkins argued that a higher percentage of conservative students on campus contributes to an ideologically diverse dialogue because BYU students represent a further-ranging spectrum of thought.
“I find in my classes that when I ask a question, I get a wide range of ideological responses,” Hawkins said.
Pope sees the same thing in his classes, including some strained moments when peoples’ ideas come in conflict with each other.
“Politics lately does tend to attract some of the people who are in the extremes of the distribution of political attitudes,” he said. “I’ve seen it in classrooms before, when those people start going at it, you can have some tense moments.”
This sort of tension mimics what is happening at a national level, where Pope said small groups of people with more extreme opinions get loud and heated in political discourse.
Most political contention, however, can be attributed to partisanship rather than polarization, Pope said.
“We’re not so much polarized as we are partisan. Polarization kind of implies in many ways that we have this kind of defined world view that we come at things from a distinctly liberal or conservative perspective,” he said. “I think most of the evidence that I’ve seen suggests that most people can’t really generate that. They’re not that thoughtful about politics. What they can generate is, ‘I like my team better than the other team.’”
Outside of this general partisanship, which is a passive group identification, Pope said some people are devoted to specific causes. This might account for recent protests on campus relating to the Honor Code and the treatment of the LGBT community.
Pope said he doesn’t think every student needs to be completely committed to a cause, either. Depending on a person’s circumstance, politics might not be the most important way for them to spend their time.
He did encourage everyone to identify a small way to engage, perhaps with issues that are “close to you and close to home.”
“Some level of caring about politics is important for everyone, because creating a good society is the responsibility of us all collectively,” he said.