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It’s not uncommon for my Facebook posts to receive hundreds of comments; the more controversial the topic, the more comments are usually generated. A few issues, without fail, rank near the top: military intervention, breastfeeding, and vaccinations. But these threads were recently overshadowed by an unexpected tidal wave of opinion on an absurd issue: BYU-Idaho students being admonished for exposing ankle flesh.
Individuals who attend one of the LDS church-owned educational institutions agree, as part of enrollment, to abide by the school’s “Honor Code”—a code of conduct governing things such as drug and alcohol consumption, interactions with the opposite gender, and dress and grooming standards. It is part of the price of admission to study at the tithing-subsidized church colleges.
As many critics have (correctly) pointed out, however, the minutia of these mandates can sometimes be borderline (if not outright) ludicrous.
For the past several years, the LDS Church has invested substantial time and money in the creation of video vignettes of popular New Testament stories. The production cost and attention to detail have been significant; as the Mormon Newsroom wrote, “The creators were careful to reflect the stories of the King James Version of the New Testament as faithfully as possible, paying meticulous attention to scriptural details.” This careful detail especially included wardrobe and grooming, ensuring that the actors appeared like the individuals they were portraying, to create fidelity to the original story.
This detail, of course, includes facial hair—a popular style for Israelite men during the time of Christ. Because some potential actors are generally prohibited from growing facial hair while attending one of the Church’s schools, the casting department addressed the issue on their “Frequently Asked Questions” page: “I go to BYU and they do not allow beards. Can I still participate?” The page clarifies that it is possible to obtain an exemption to the section of the honor code that prohibits facial hair for men.
One man in this situation, a student at the LDS Business College, obtained the exemption earlier this month after signing a lengthy and detailed agreement. Noting that the student had provided evidence that he was filming in the Church’s New Testament videos, the letter states, among other requirements, that he “is required to dress professionally (in a shirt and tie) as a way to compensate for not shaving” and “is required to wear a lanyard stating [he has] official authorization to wear a beard.”
Here is the student, with “professional dress” (“to compensate”) and his lanyard:
Let’s sum up: here we have a guy who has sought out an opportunity to participate in the Church’s videos recreating important and spiritual scenes from the scriptures. Assuming that he will be representing a “believer,” he will be trying to place himself spiritually, emotionally, and mentally in the place of one of Christ’s early followers. Despite this affiliation—potentially representing one of Christ’s early representatives—the student must be chastened, contractually constricted, and made to caution others as to his supposedly unclean and unkempt state.
Lest critics assume otherwise, let me clarify emphatically that I strongly believe in the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, its restoration to the earth, and modern revelation. Unlike many Mormons, however, I am completely comfortable in recognizing that the Church’s leaders are not always perfect, that individuals who are at times inspired are not necessarily inspired all the time, and that a leader’s virtue and wisdom does not automatically trickle down to subordinate staffers who implement and execute the various policies overseen by that leader.
I’ll say it simply: I believe that the no-beard policy at Church schools is stupid. The presence of facial hair is not an indicator of spirituality, intellect, or fidelity to God’s commandments; saints and sinners span wide swaths of society, including a variety of dress, grooming, cultural, and behavioral standards. Modesty and cleanliness can be easily achieved even with a beard. And as we all know, men in early Church leadership often had beards, and only in past decades has an apparent desire for cultural conformity developed into an institutional inquisition against an aspect of male bodies that God himself saw fit to include in His design.
Of course, Jesus himself is exclusively portrayed in LDS art as being bearded, and is never once thought of as being spiritually lazy, culturally rebellious, or any of the other stigmas assigned to beards by some Saints. It’s humorous, on that note, to ponder what a popular depiction of Christ would look like after undergoing the Honor Code requirements, as is shown here:
Like the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, many people realize that there is no rational foundation upon which to construct an argument against facial hair that has to do with the spirituality of the bearded individual. Thus, most people who object to criticisms against these policies reduce the entire conversation to the requirement and agreement: Church leaders have decided to only admit clean-shaven men to Church-owned schools, and therefore anybody who has agreed to this provision must unquestioningly abide by it. It is, they say, nothing more than a contractual obligation—one which gives them no right to complain.
This trivial position entirely misses the point. Nobody is suggesting that students burn their beard exemption cards in protest like the draft dodgers of the 60s, or show up to the testing center with two day’s growth, or otherwise engage in defiance of the commitment they’ve made. The point is that the requirement is apparently arbitrary and asinine. The fact that many have agreed to abide by it does not automatically assign to it any relevance, reverence, or respect.
It’s hard not to draw parallels to the very scriptures in which this LDS Business College student will be immersed in his role recreating them. The Church’s depiction of the story of the leper being healed by Jesus accurately shows the man ringing a bell to identify his presence to passersby, somewhat akin to the lanyard-hung alert required of the bearded actor shown above. And the Pharisees, as we have been taught since our youth, were far more concerned with fanatical obedience to unimportant rules than the underlying principles and truths of the gospel—proudly enlarging the borders of their robes and sizes of their phylacteries to outwardly fake what they inwardly lacked.
Hugh Nibley, eloquent as always, emphasized this point thusly:
The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism… the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.
This is not so much a condemnation of Church leaders as it is of Church culture—a widespread attention towards, and reliance upon, external factors as a basis of judging inward belief and motivation. Pretentious policies predicated on false presumptions should be discarded; if “man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart,” should we Saints not work towards the latter rather than stubbornly focusing on the former?