Excited to move to Utah to begin my education at Brigham Young University (BYU), I received a rather annoying piece of advice. “Whatever you see or hear, just remember, the Church is true.” I was astonished, even took some umbrage, at the thought that my BYU experience – more so my new life in Zion – would be anything but uplifting.
That was 1980. I graduated in 1984. In between was an eye-opening broadside to my “Gospel sensibilities.” My BYU experience matched my academic GPA – conspicuously average. Nearly every interesting thing I did, I did on my own. The Harold B. Lee Library was my playground, especially the 4th floor containing everything political and the “special collections” room wherein treasures of LDS history awaited.
Classroom experiences were less than interesting. What most students saw as harmless conventional secular teachings, I saw as political liberalism and deliberate departmental progressivism bent on gaining worldly respectability (e.g., the uninspired quest to become the “Harvard of the West”). Such a waste of tithing dollars. Such arrogance in subordinating gospel truths, I felt bordering on apostasy, to secular intellectual fads.
Instead, I escaped into my own quest for truth and regarded “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture” as covens for enlightened bullies in need of exposure and a personal comeuppance. As I wrote in a previous chapter, I was a co-founder of a student newspaper, The Western Scholar, designed to challenge liberal and progressive thinking at BYU, but mostly on my part to challenge the apostates in sheep’s clothing – the BYU faculty versions of Neville Chamberlin or Vidkun Quisling.
My few courageous partners and I published three issues of the paper before the BYU administration, with then-President Jeffrey R. Holland at the helm, prohibited our paper from being distributed on campus. In essence, we were told confidentially that the real target was the truly apostate Seventh East Press newspaper that regularly challenged authority, attempted to expose every “hidden” secret, raised every point of obscure “doctrine,” and championed every politically progressive cause of the time. To avoid the appearance that the administration was persecuting or censuring the Press, our Western Scholar became collateral damage when lumped in with them as publications “independent of the University” and therefore banned.
We appealed but for naught. Our last hope was Quorum of the Twelve Apostles President Ezra Taft Benson, the grandfather of one in our close-knit group. A few of us met with President Benson in his office on Temple Square and pleaded our case. He supported our cause, even writing a very brief personal note to then-President Holland directly on our letter of appeal. But ultimately he, too, made no difference in the administration’s processes or its final determination.
Back in the classroom was more of the same. I openly objected to teachings favoring organic evolution, complete military disarmament, socialist undertones through Keynesian macro-economic theory, the invocation of historicism (e.g., “Mero, how dare you judge people of the past for their murderous ways!”), and moral equivalences in foreign policy between the United States and the Soviet Union, among other examples.
During one foreign policy class discussion about U.S./Soviet relations, I mentioned that a past president of the LDS Church, David O. McKay, was asked his thoughts about that relationship and replied, “If any person treated me the way the Soviet Union treats the United States [breaking every treaty between the two], I’d sever ties with that person.” My progressive, proudly “Palestinian,” then-head of the state Democratic Party in Utah professor made clear that in his classroom “we don’t parrot the prophets.” But “you do take their money,” I thought as I quickly dropped the class from my schedule.
There is no small piece of my personality that is obviously contrarian. Even the littlest of signs point to it: Living my earliest years in the Bay Area while rooting for the Los Angeles Dodgers or even preferring the newly founded Oakland A’s over the long and historic traditions of the Giants; quickly becoming a Green Bay Packer fan and not a fan of the Chicago Bears; rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals over the Chicago Cubs; and, after settling in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. as a young teenager, I relished my support of the Dallas Cowboys against the then-Washington Redskins (although I have since repented of that crime).
But my contrarian personality does not blind me to the truth. I am not a skeptic. A few very dear and close friends, when asked to briefly describe me would easily and quickly respond, “Paul is a truth-seeker.” And I am, unashamedly and unapologetically. Of course, being a truth-seeker doesn’t mean I find it, let alone own and apply the truth. I often don’t. But it does mean that being a truth-seeker is my first intellectual instinct. I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a result of truth-seeking.
I graduated from BYU in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy, a hybrid at that time of political science and economics. In addition to pursuing my degree, I also worked full time for The Allen Group, one of the first serious ventures into the get-rich-quick seminar business at the time and a company nearly 100 percent comprised of Latter-day Saints. The Allen Group sold real estate materials at its seminars teaching registrants “how to buy real estate with little or no money down.” Its founder, Robert Allen, had a New York Times bestselling book on the chart for unprecedented weeks. These guys were the original house flippers and, in today’s market, you might see them plying their ideas on HGTV.
While I was grateful for the reasonably good pay that allowed Sally to be home with our three older kids and my sister, Leslie, I found little to be proud of at work. In fact, despite my colleagues being kind and personable towards me, I came to disbelieve the words, deeds, and marketing rhetoric of its owners. I openly debated many times with colleagues and even the founders about their transactional practices. But to no avail. Money-making was the game. At one point in the early 1980s, the founders were each pulling in around $80,000 a month. The Allen brothers, Robert and Richard, the creator and the administrator, respectfully, were living in tall cotton in little Provo, Utah.
There is truth and there is making money. There are financial transactions and there are devotional commitments to help our fellow man. From those early years of my studies at BYU, all on my own, I knew the free market possessed a moral and social context wherein the happiness of people came first and selfish individualism followed a very distant second. The Allen brothers were experts in LDS culture at justifying their greed. Much like television preachers today, they were doing the work of the Lord – as if materialistic prosperity is a priority for Jesus Christ.
Outside of the secularism at BYU, The Allen Group provided every opportunity for me to see the worst side of Latter-day Saints. After a few years with them, even a year after I graduated, the seminar market shifted dramatically and my customer-first assurance and lectures on morality became a nuisance. We parted ways on October 7, 1985. By the time we moved back to the Washington, D.C area about seven months later, I was more than ready to leave Utah and shake off its hypocritical and corrupt hyper-culture of Utah Latter-day Saints.