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Jerry Earl Johnston: BYU's honor code is strictly a matter of spiritual self-discipline

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 3:51 a.m. MDT

For a Utah writer with a newspaper "ethics" column, this past week has been an embarrassment of riches.

We've seen news stories about local universities winking at the criminal records of athletes.

Tim DeChristopher was convicted of pushing the envelope of civil disobedience too far, and immigration conflicts have cropped up every day.

But the ethics story of the week has been the BYU honor code.

The headline was stark: Star basketball player dropped from BYU team for moral lapse.

The debate among the chattering classes, however, has been confused and cluttered.

Some couldn't believe their ears.

What was this all about? Were we still handing out "scarlet letters" in the 21st century? Was the Massachusetts Bay Colony still around?

Others cheered a school that was willing to put something — anything — above athletics.

Some echoed the old line, "If he didn't want to go to Pittsburgh, he shouldn't have gotten on the Pittsburgh train."

My take has been a bit different.

I lived under the honor code at BYU for a couple of years back in the 1970s.

I see the story from a slant.

The BYU honor code is not about school officials wanting to control, harass or punish students.

The code isn't about repression or penance.

It's about something older and more basic.

The BYU honor code is about self-discipline.

When cadets run afoul of the rules at military academies, nobody says the Army or Navy is behind the times, that the armed services are unfair or invasive. It's understood that soldiers and sailors agree to live their lives by a code. If you don't care to live the code, you live some other way.

That's what is happening at BYU.

Spiritual discipline — once the hallmark of Christianity — is today viewed as quaint and even harmful. All you need do is check the advancing age of U.S. monks to see how antiquated the notion of spiritual discipline has become.

But for those who consecrate their efforts to God — as many Mormons do — discipline feels natural, even joyful.

Let me say here, I've never been very good at it.

While at BYU I worked the margins. I grew my hair and sideburns too long and was told to visit the campus barber.

I was cautioned at a dance that my "moves" were too provocative and I often flaunted my anti-establishment credentials.

I was then, and remain now, in no position to preach the honor code.

But I do think I'm in a position to observe and comment.

Could I live the way BYU kids live today?

No. But I honestly admire the students who stick to their guns and live by the code.

There is something earnest and high-minded about it. And those are qualities in short supply today.

If you really want to understand what moral discipline is about, read St. Therese's "The Story of a Soul" or visit with one of the plebes at West Point.

Better yet, sit down with a BYU student and listen — really listen — to what they say.

If you have ears to hear, and a desire to understand, you will.

e-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company