Tonight, Elder Oaks spoke at Harvard. Just a little more than a week after a Newsweek article accused Harvard of ignoring the importance of the academic study of religion, Elder Oaks visited Harvard Law School as part of a series of bringing high-profile LDS legal figures to speak on Mormonism 101. Such an occasion is interesting because the intended audience (though by no means the actual audience) were non-LDS, so it interesting to see how someone like Oaks packages the gospel message in such a context.
The majority of the talk expounds some basic LDS teachings about the nature of God, the purpose of life, and the importance of revelation (this section is particularly interesting!). However, as his preface to the core of his talk on these three teachings of the Church, Oaks engages in a sharp polemic against contemporary secular education, like that at Harvard.
Oaks cites Gary Lawrence’s recent book How Americans View Mormonism, expressing disappointment that few American’s could cite the central claim of Mormonism, namely, “restoration or reestablishment of the original Christian faith.” He connected this lack of awareness about Mormonism to a broader ignorance about “religion,” by which he meant Christianity. To blame for this state of ignorance, Oaks said the following:
“Many factors contribute to our people’s predominant shallowness on the subject of religion, but one of them is surely higher education’s general hostility or indifference to religion. Despite most colleges’ and universities’ founding purpose to produce clergymen and to educate in the truths taught in their chapels, most have now abandoned their role of teaching religion. With but few exceptions, colleges and universities have become value-free places where attitudes toward religion are neutral at best. Some faculty and administrators are powerful contributors to the forces that are driving religion to the margins of American society. Students and other religious people who believe in the living reality of God and moral absolutes are being marginalized.”
Here, he suggests that American universities have the veered away from “their role in teaching religion,” again meaning, Christianity. He laments the “value-free” and “neutral” stand toward religion, but especially what he sees as the “marginilization” of religion. The suggestion that American universities are hostile to faith is, of course, widely dispute and several studies show little difference between professed religious belief on campus and religious belief among non-college going peers and even broader society. In many ways, one could argue that relative to the early and mid 20th century, university education is must less hostile to religion now.
“Some have suggested that religion is returning to intellectual life. In this view, religion is too influential to ignore in these times of the Taliban and the political influence of some religious organizations. But it seems unrealistic to expect higher education as a whole to resume a major role in teaching moral values. That will remain the domain of homes, churches, and church-related colleges and universities. All should hope for success in this vital task. The academy can pretend to neutrality on questions of right and wrong, but society cannot survive on such neutrality.”
Here, Oaks suggests, as I understand this statement, that the study of religion is happening at universities, specifically the study of radical Islamic groups and the “political influence of some religious organizations.” He acknowledges, however, that it is “unrealistic” to expect universities to teach “moral values.” Homes, churches, and church schools are necessary for this, and nothing less than the survival of society rests on the success of these institutions. Why exactly it is unrealistic, Oaks does not say. Neither does he suggest that in today’s pluralistic environment, the teaching of one particular faith in a university is a bad idea, or undesirable.
I find several of these claims to be very interesting, and regret that they weren’t fleshed out more. These polemical jabs at secular universities are all the more interesting since they appear to be entirely extraneous to the main points of the talk as well as the intended purpose of the forum. Oaks has recently deployed familiar culture war rhetoric on other topics such as religion in the public square and of course on marriage, some of which he repeated at Harvard tonight. Yet, I am unaware of him previously taking up the cry against secular education, lamenting the lack of Christian moral teaching in universities.
I am particularly interested in the nostalgia for a time when Christian “religion” was taught, as the only sure source of societal survival. Oaks seems to suggest that not only is the lack of teaching about Christianity to blame, but that any other religion would be insufficient to teach students about “moral values.” What moral values is he referring to exactly? If the survival of society is threatened by university educations which fail to inculcate these moral values, what specifically is he referring to? Is he committing to a view that social survival is only possible where Christian moral values are taught?
On the heals of the Newsweek article mentioned above, which suggested that Harvard should include a more high-profile study of religion, dismissing the Harvard Divinity School as full of “believers,” Elder Oaks offers a critique from a different direction. While the specific claims of the Newsweek article are almost all suspect, from the characterization of the resources available to study religion at Harvard, to the details of the curricular issues at stake and administrative issues in making a department of religion at Harvard, the emphasis that Harvard students should study religion is something few could disagree with. But this is not what Oaks has in mind. For the author of the Newsweek article, it is knowledge about other religions that is key to social stability in our current world: “Any resolution of these conflicts will have to come from people who understand how religious belief and practice influence our world.”
Oaks, however, takes a different tack, suggesting that the study about religions is ultimately insufficient for the survival of society, and that such a stance constitutes a threat that can only be counterbalanced by the teaching of religion, if not in universities, than in churches.
It is interesting to contrast these two messages about how society will survive vis a vis religion. For the Newsweek article, knowing about religion, what motivates people, and an awareness of the values (“morals?”) of religious people is a necessary aspect of leadership in society. For Oaks, an awareness of these things is not valued at all since it implies a dangerous neutrality. Rather, it is living the moral values of Christianity that is necessary for the survival of society. Are such ways of seeing religion as incommensurate as both views suggest?