The Trouble with BYU’s Religious Education (Part II)

The previous post discussed two methodological problems with Religious Education that fostered the circumstances leading to Randy Bott’s troubling statements. In this post I will discuss what I see as the likely short-term response within RE. In the next post I will discuss my desired long-term response.

In the short-term, the Randy Bott situation will push RE professors toward what I’ll call an “orthodox professionalism.” 

Bott’s comments are a mark against not only RE but also against the University (and Mormonism) as a whole. The University will push those in RE to present themselves more professionally, which generally means that RE professors will be encouraged to only speak as experts in the fields in which they were trained. The sentiment of RE not being on par academically with the rest of the University has been building for quite some time; the Bott issue will add fuel to this fire. This pressure from the larger community in the University is what I mean by a push toward “professionalism.”

Professors in Religious Education will also come under closer scrutiny in terms of the things they teach in class and the things they say in public or put in writing. The Bott situation raises the question of how many students have heard him teach the things he said in the WaPo article. RE will work to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. I predict that there will be less tolerance of professors presenting views that students or the wider public might take as not in line with current Church teaching. This will entail a constriction toward the middle (a movement away from both ends of the liberal-conservative ideological spectrum). Writing or speaking about anything not clearly supported by “the brethren” will not be tolerated.

I doubt that this will lead to any dismissals (although it’s possible that a few may not be given Continuing Faculty Status—BYU’s version of tenure). Instead Religious Education professors (at least those with some kind of training in religious studies) will walk the fine line of orthodox professionalism by producing respectable scholarship (i.e., peer reviewed articles and books) on safe topics. So we can expect more scholarship on Ugaritic meal rites but not on the Documentary Hypothesis; more publications on narrative humor in the Testament of Abraham but not on the Book of Abraham.

In the classroom these professors will teach in a way that students will be less likely to complain that their faith has been challenged. These profs will handle this by citing current general authorities when articulating a point of belief, and supplementing this with a more rigorous (but non-threatening) historical narrative of the Bible and Doctrine and Covenants. This kind of historical approach seems to be the most allowable, in terms of rigor, and least threatening, in terms of faith.

My sense is that the next few years will be a difficult time for professors in Religious Education; especially for new hires, who will have to be vetted as able to walk the line of orthodox professionalism before they can be hired.

15 Replies to “The Trouble with BYU’s Religious Education (Part II)”

  1. smallaxe, certainly “orthodox professionalism” as you’ve described it is an improvement over either unorthodox professionalism or orthodox unprofessionalism. But it is still going to be in tension with the by all accounts desirable increase in academic rigor you discussed in Part 1. It sounds like Religious Education might not be a fun place to work in the wake of Bott — being under a microscope and all. That, too, works against the desirable goals expressed in the prior post.

  2. Wasn’t what you call orthodox professionalism always the status quo there? I think that’s partially why so many were shocked by Bott. Unless by quoting GAs you mean only recent GAs so McConkie goes by the wayside along with most other figures of the 50’s through 70’s and before. That’ll get challenging for them since the clear pattern since the 70’s is a move away from doctrine in GA talks. They’ve become much more motivational outside of a few exceptions like Elder Packer.

  3. Hi Dave,

    I think the professional aspect of things is an improvement; not so sure about the orthodox aspect of things. The reason I’m not so sure is because this “orthodoxy” is something likely determined by RE and goes above and beyond what is required of other BYU faculty. Someone like Grant Hardy, for instance, might be welcome in the History Department, but my sense is that he wouldn’t be welcome in RE.

  4. Hi Clark,

    No, I don’t think orthodox professionalism was the status quo. The trouble with Bott demonstrates the failure of RE on both counts. I do think that the status quo was a (slow) movement toward professionalism; and I think the Bott situation will speed this up. I also think the status quo was beginning to be more inclusive in terms of what counts as orthodox. The Bott trouble will restrict this inclusivism.

  5. Thank you, Smallaxe. I believe that this has been a very enlightening discussion, which will hopefully provide some important perspective to LDS graduate students in religious studies interested in BYU. We cannot lose track of the fact that BYU does not have a religious studies department. Religious Education is a very unique entity. I think one of the unmentioned challenges that interested parties need to recognize is the strange dynamic in which “devotional teaching,” meant to bring students closer to Christ, is combined with faculty competition. All academic departments foster this competition through determining career advancement through publishing original academic insights, and student ratings, but Religious Ed. places this world into a “devotional” mission to bring souls unto Christ. Personally, I can’t help but feel that many of the department’s challenges are a result of this specific issue. BYU teaching is seminary teaching, and imagine what would happen to a release-time seminary program if the salaries and career advancement of LDS seminary teachers, trying to help students come unto Christ, were dependent upon student ratings, and an ability to show publicly that one has unique academic insights. Maybe it’s just me, but I for one simply can’t see how these two worlds can ever successfully exist as one.

  6. Very interesting post. I do agree that professors will need to walk the line in the future, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing. It’s certainly a thought-provoking concept that is worthy of discussion.

  7. Hi Cushan,

    You make an interesting point about the relation of the mission of RE (bringing individuals to Christ) and the realities of gaining CFS and rank; I hadn’t really thought about that before. I think the starker, and somewhat related, tension is between quantifying the notion of bringing individuals to Christ and helping students gain an understanding of the material.

    I wrote a bit about this here:

    The argument, as it relates to this discussion, is that assisting individuals to come unto Christ tends to be measured by further activity in the Church, and so teaching is geared to this end. The classroom is a means to bring about the ends of increased activity in Church. Any other goals, such as understanding, analyzing, or interpreting the material, at least in practice, become instrumentalized.

    One possible way to bridge this, IMO, is to make the argument that such an approach is not the best at leading to the desired outcome. If it’s true that young people are leaving the Church, perhaps there are other ways of teaching the material that may lead to a better outcome. Perhaps a more rigorous or critical approach should be allowed. This doesn’t solve the problem of instrumentalization, but it at least gets us somewhere.

  8. No publications on the Documentary Hypothesis? I have seen public discussion of this from non-RE BYU faculty. Is that really out of bounds? Or is it just a topic that is likely to be de-emphasized in the wake of more orthodoxy? I cannot recall a conference talk that precludes this in the time period now being considered orthodox.
    Nibley could have written about the DH all he wanted. I think that certain aspects could be covered without the slightest worry.

  9. Hi el oso,

    Is that really out of bounds? Or is it just a topic that is likely to be de-emphasized in the wake of more orthodoxy?

    I think just about anything can be discussed if it leads to the right outcome (see my comments above), so I’d say it’s more the latter than the former. I don’t think, though, that we’ll see any publications on it for a couple of reasons: for one, there are very few, if any, in RE that could publish something on the Doc Hyp. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a topic that could lead to questions–if P (or J or E) is post-exhilic, for instance, what are the implications for LDS scriptures that treat those sections of the text as first hand accounts? Better to work on things that won’t raise eyebrows.

    Regarding Nibley, I’d have to agree with Cushan. Also, my sense is that Nibley’s relationship with BYU is more complex than we tend to think it is.

  10. I do not know whether or not Bott’s ideas are true or false. But this I do know, if they are true, all of the indignation, rant and criticism will not change a thing. The truth cannot be changed by popular acclamation.

  11. Nibley and the religion department didn’t exactly see eye to eye at times back when Nibley was alive. So let’s not assume things are worse now than then. I’d also note that there’s no shortage of writing on the DH over at the Maxwell Institute. Admittedly many are critical of it – but others adopt it relative to the whole issue of how to take Israel at the time of Lehi.

  12. The Religion Department(s) at BYU are not the Maxwell Institute. Moreover, the teachers in RE very much consider themselves the GOO’s of the Church (Guardians of Orthodoxy), however, as I see it, there are really two major problems with this self-ordained status:

    1. With degrees in everything from “Instructional Technology” to “Egyptology,” to “Lifespan Development Psychology,” very few of the teachers in RE are either academically or intellectually capable of serving in the capacity as the Church’s official GOO’s.

    2. Despite what they assume, the Church’s GOO’s are not a group of religious instructors who take pride in their own WCS (Wasatch front Celebrity Status). The GOO’s are the GA’s (General Authorities).

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