Opinion: What Latter-day Saint theology says about equity, and why it matters

In the Book of Mormon, being equitable was a characteristic of multiple leaders who were considered good and just.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artwork of Joseph Smith in the John Taylor Building at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Wednesday January 17, 2018.

One theme of my work as a professor of education at BYU has been to highlight the spiritual foundations of historic and contemporary social justice movements. With recent Utah Republican efforts to ban “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in K-12 and higher education, I wanted to better understand what the theology of Utah’s dominant faith says about the concept of “equity.”

So, with the help of two research assistants, I have spent the last few months researching the term in the four “standard works” that Latter-day Saints regard as scripture and we have found some interesting things.

Of the 22 uses of the word “equity” we found in Latter-day Saint sacred texts, most occur in the Old Testament (nine references) and the Book of Mormon (10 references). When we coded these occurrences, some interesting themes emerged, which I will share below:

Equity is a quality of good leadership

In the Book of Mormon, being equitable was a characteristic of multiple leaders who were considered good and just. For example, the summary of a famous address by a leader named King Benjamin includes his recounting of the “equity, fairness and spirituality of his reign.”

Similarly, a leader named Helaman who comes later in the text is described as “fill[ing] his judgment-seat with justice and equity.” In like manner, when Helaman’s eldest son Nephi takes over the leadership role, he is also described as “walk[ing] in the ways of his father” in terms of his righteousness and commitment to “justice and equity.”

Equity is fundamental to good societies, iniquity is in-equity

Along with good leadership, equity featured prominently as a descriptor of effective ancient and modern governments. Towards the end of the Book of Mormon, a group of people called the Nephites were described as “prosper[ing]” and achieving “great order in the land” because “they had formed their laws according to equity and justice.”

In the modern church, early leader Oliver Cowdery wrote a declaration about Latter-day Saint beliefs about government and noted that civil officers and magistrates who were willing to “administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people.”

Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from an ancient language directly into English. So, understanding what the word meant within the linguistic context of the early 1800′s is important. According to an 1828 Edition of Webster’s Dictionary equity is “the impartial distribution of justice, or the doing that to another which the laws of God and man, and of reason, give him a right to claim. It is the treating of a person according to justice and reason.”

One of the major themes of the Book of Mormon is the way that pride, materialism and “iniquity” led to the downfall of ancient American civilizations that once followed the teachings of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we also considered what “iniquity” meant in the early 1800′s context when Latter-day Saints believe the Book of Mormon was translated. According to the aforementioned Webster’s Dictionary, one of the variations of the word “iniquity” is “in-equity” or “injustice; unrighteousness; a deviation from rectitude; as the iniquity of war; the iniquity of the slave trade.”

Equity is a characteristic of Jesus Christ

Like many people, Latter-day Saints regard Jesus Christ as a divine being that we should model our lives after. Accordingly, we were interested to find that “equity” emerged as a frequent descriptor of a figure that church members believe is the Savior of the world. Many of the references cite “equity” as a quality of the judgment of God and Jesus. For example, one Old Testament verse describes how God will judge the poor “with righteousness … and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth.”

However, perhaps the most direct reference comes from a Book of Mormon prophet named Alma who preached to a city about the need for repentance prior to the coming of Jesus Christ. As he stated, “And not many days hence the Son of God shall come in his glory, and his glory shall be the Glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace, equity and truth, full of patience, mercy and long-suffering, quick to hear the cries of his people and to answer their prayers.”

Surely if “equity” is included alongside such core Christian attributes as “grace,” “truth” and “mercy” it is not one that followers of Christ can lightly ignore.

Recently, during Governor Spencer Cox’s State of the State address, he quoted the Book of Mormon to highlight Utah as a place with “peculiar people” who shouldn’t be afraid to be a little bit “weird.” I echo this sentiment to my Republican co-religionists who are currently poised to prohibit all mentions of “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) in Utah’s K-12 and higher education institutions.

We don’t need to follow the playbook of other Republican-led states who have created similar DEI bans. We can define these terms for the Utah context without banning them outright. Lawmakers — I would be happy to have this conversation with you in Provo, Salt Lake or anywhere in between.

Eric Ruiz Bybee

Dr. Eric Ruiz Bybee is an associate professor at BYU and teaches courses in multicultural education and civil rights. He is also part of the steering committee of Utah Rooting Out Racism — a non-partisan coalition of parents, educators, students, and community members committed to eliminating racism in Utah schools. The views published here are his alone.

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